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Army and police brutality keeps starving Zimbabweans indoors

April 24th, 2020
topic:Security
by:Cyril Zenda
located in:Zimbabwe
tags:Africa, Coronavirus, COVID-19, human rights

For three hours since the COVID-19 lockdown started on March 31, Trust Goronga, a 37-year old resident of Hopley – an unplanned settlement on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare – takes great risk as he goes around the neighbourhood selling home-made floor polish, his only source of livelihood for the past 12 years.

While at the end of these rounds the father of four is relieved that he would have managed to make some sales, getting money only solves half of his problems for the day. The next challenge is being able to find food for his family. He has to venture out again – this time together with his wife, Maureen (29) – to go and jostle for maize meal, a staple that is in critical short supply, among other daily necessities to sustain their hand-to-mouth existence.

“We are fully aware of the dangers that we are taking violating the (COVID-19) lockdown, but we have no other choice,” said Trust, who added that twice since the lockdown started, he had to run for his life after encountering menacing army and police units brutally enforcing the lockdown.

“We all would want to be law-abiding citizens but if we do not violate it (lockdown) we will starve,” the wife, Maureen, chimed in. “So far we have been very lucky not be caught,” she added.

Brutalised

However not everyone has been as lucky as this couple, as hundreds of other Zimbabweans can no longer leave their homes because of serious injuries inflicted on them by the security forces after gnawing hunger forced them to venture out. Those unlucky to be caught have harrowing stories to tell, having been savagely beaten by the armed soldiers and policemen patrolling business centres and residential areas.

“They asked where I was going and the moment I showed them my journalism I.D. (identity) card, I was asked to lie down and was beaten being accused of exposing them”, reported Terrence Sipuma, a freelance journalist who was caught up in the security dragnet.

Human Rights Watch southern Africa director, Dewa Mavhinga, told FairPlanet that the watchdog was keeping a close eye on the situation in Zimbabwe, a country where the security forces have a culture of violating rights with impunity.

“We are closely monitoring the situation in Zimbabwe,” Mavhinga said.

Fear causing under-reporting

With police officers and soldiers being the perpetrators, the exact numbers of the victims may not be known as most of them do not come out for fear of getting into more trouble. Apart from fear of courting more danger by venturing out of their homes to reach police stations to file reports, there is also general discouragement arising from what is seen as a futile effort of reporting the perpetrators practically to themselves. To add to all this is also discouragement that comes from an understandable fear of retribution.

However, a few have been bold enough to report these abuses to some non-governmental organisations. To show how these cases remain under-reported, in the first week into the lockdown, when the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (the Forum) indicated that it had received 164 cases of arrests, the police’s own figure was nearly 3,000. Most of these arrests are usually preceded by thorough beatings. Of those that reported to the Forum — a coalition of 21 human rights organisations in Zimbabwe — 143 of them filed cases of assault against the police and the army, and nine journalists reported being attacked by the security forces while carrying out their duties.

There are also cases of the security forces demanding bribes from people caught outside their homes without proof of being part of the essential services.

“As violence against civilians increases, the Forum continues to call upon law enforcement officers to respect human rights and to employ non-violent measures to enforce the national lockdown”, the Forum said in one of its updates.

Without denying the abuses, the police pointed out that the lockdown itself make it hard for most victims to report their cases. The Zimbabwe Republic Police has since provided two hotline numbers on which it says citizens can report abuses by its officers and soldiers.

Court challenges

The rights violations prompted two court challenges, the first one seeking (and won) an order stopping the police and the army from beating citizens in the course of enforcing the lockdown, and the second seeking to force the government to provide a social net for the vulnerable majority, who are worst affected by the lockdown.

Unlike other African countries that are also in COVID-19 lockdowns, the Zimbabwean situation has been worsened by the fact that the country has been suffering what Hilal Elver – the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food – concluded to be a man-made starvation. The situation on the ground has not been made easier by what civil society organisations (CSOs) say is politicisation of the distribution of the little available food, with members of the opposition being excluded.

Atmosphere already tense

The relationship between Zimbabwe’s security forces and citizens has been frosty for some time due to the worsening political and economic crises, crises that have in the past led to violent mass protests. In January last year, violent anti-government protests shut the country for more a week resulting in the death of 17 people and the arrest of hundreds others. In the security crackdown that followed the protests, hundreds of people were brutalised in their homes, with some cases of women being raped by armed men in their homes reported.

There were two other major protests in the course of 2019. This has caused some CSOs to suspect that the heavy-handedness of the security forces could be a way of pre-empting any possible explosion of the pent-up anger among a population that is already bruised politically and socio-economically.

Rule of law suffering

The World Justice Project has warned of a spike in rights violations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Rule of law promises to both shape and be shaped by the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic,” WJP said when it launched its 2020 Rule Of Law Index at the end of March. “Core rule of law principles — accountability of both citizens and government, fundamental rights, and open government processes — can play a critical role in a successful response to the COVID-19 crisis. But at the same time, the pandemic poses fresh challenges to these principles, exacerbating division and inequality in our societies and creating opportunities for corruption and abuse of power.”

In the run up to the lockdown, the government announced a raft of harsh laws that could see citizens being jailed for 20 years for “hoarding food”, “spreading falsehoods”, among other things, laws that Mavhinga described as draconian.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Zimbabwe
“We are fully aware of the dangers that we are taking violating the (COVID-19) lockdown, but we have no other choice.”
Hundreds of other Zimbabweans can no longer leave their homes because of serious injuries inflicted on them by the security forces.
Human Rights Watch southern Africa director, Dewa Mavhinga, told Fair Planet that the watchdog was keeping a close eye on the situation in Zimbabwe, a country where the security forces have a culture of violating rights with impunity.
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