Hospitalised activists risk being jailed

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Joanna Mamombe, an MDC Alliance legislator for Harare West, Cecilia Chimbiri, the MDC(A) Youth National Vice Chairperson and Netsai Marova, Youth Deputy Organising Secretary, were arrested on 13 May for leading an anti-government protest taking place that day over the authorities’ response to the Covid-19 outbreak and hunger in the country. They were arrested at a police roadblock, manned by police and soldiers near Warren Park, along Bulawayo Road in Harare. 

Following their arrest, they were taken to Harare Central Police Station where they were asked to get into another vehicle under the pretext that they were being taken to Warren Park Police Station. According to the activists, their heads were covered in sacks/hoods and they were driven to an unknown place where they were beaten on the soles of their feet, sexually assaulted and forced to eat human excreta. The state-owned newspaper, the Herald, reported on 14 May that the three were arrested and national police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi confirmed their arrest, though he was not aware of where they were being held. On the same day, the police denied that the activists were in their custody, through their official Twitter handle.

The three activists were then found in the early hours of Friday 15 May, dumped in Bindura, 87 km from Harare, with their clothes torn and badly assaulted. They have since been in hospital. Some government officials including the Minister of Justice, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Media, Information and Broadcasting have dismissed their disappearance and claimed that it had been ‘stage managed’ by the opposition. The Minister of Justice has come out calling for their arrest. 

On 26 May, police charged the three activists with breaching Section 37 of Criminal Code, that is gathering with intent to promote public violence, breach of peace in violation which provides for imprisonment up to five years or a fine or both and Section 5(3) and (1) of Statutory Instrument 99/20 that prohibits gatherings which provides for one year imprisonment or a fine or both. The Magistrate conducted a special court in hospital and the three were granted bail of ZWD$1 000 and are required to report once a week at Harare Central Police Station and to continue residing at their given residential addresses and not to interfere with state witnesses until their matter is finalised. Since the hearing on 27 May, nine prison guards and four police officers have been deployed to their ward. 

On June 4, The Minister of Home Affairs, released a statement accusing the three women of faking an abduction and accuses them of seeking benefits like scholarship in America.  Authorities have also attacked Civil Society organisations that helped the women received medical attention including the two doctors who examined them

Zimbabwe is currently under lockdown due to COVID-19. The government has failed to adequately provide social protection, leaving more people in poverty and hunger. The World Food Programme (WFP) has appealed for international support to prevent millions of desperate Zimbabweans plunging deeper into hunger. The WFP estimates that the total number of food insecure people is 7.7million people in Zimbabwe which is more than half the population. The COVID-19 crisis has left many desperate and unable to put food on the table. 

The demonstration led by Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, took place amid rising political tensions in the country over a Supreme Court Judgement that has left the main opposition party in a leadership wrangle – the judgment dismissed the opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, and asked the opposition to reelect new leadership, which has been seen as an attempt to impose leadership on the opposition party. There are allegations of political interference with the judiciary and that the ruling party, ZANU PF, was behind the judgement. MDC Alliance members of parliament have vowed to disengage with Parliament as a protest over the meddling of ZANU PF with the internal affairs of the opposition party. 

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