19 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Crackdown On Civic Groups Continues As Police Raid ZESN Offices

Police have been criticized for intensifying their crackdown on civil society organizations, after the latest raid on the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) offices in Harare.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights director Irene Petras, who is also vice chairperson of ZESN, said officers raided the offices on Tuesday looking for subversive material, documents, gadgets or recordings and illegal immigrants.

Petras told SW Radio Africa that the police search warrant was the same as the one used to raid the offices of the Zimbabwe Peace Project recently.

"The raids are carried out by the Law and Order unit of the police but we don't know where the instructions are coming from. It's quite confusing. One minute we hear from politicians that they have been discussing this, and that attacks on civil society organizations are going to cease, and the next minute there is a raid of another organization.

"So it seems the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," Petras said.

Petras said the police are on a fishing expedition to gather information and intelligence to try and disrupt the work of key organisations as the country prepares for the referendum and elections.

Social commentator Rejoice Ngwenya was facilitating a Political Parties Finance Act review planning meeting at the ZESN offices when the police came to search the premises. He said it was ironic that ZANU PF had also sent its participants to this meeting.

A ZESN statement said police broke down a durawall panel and went on to search all offices, after which they took documents pertaining to ZESN's projects and plans for observing the referendum. Earlier that same day the organisation's Masvingo office had also been broken into at 2 am and boardroom chairs, one computer and 60 t-shirts were taken by unidentified assailants.

State sponsored intimidation appears to be increasing as the country prepares to go to the polls.

Last week scores of activists from the pressure group Women of Zimbabwe Arise were beaten and arrested during anti-police brutality demonstrations in Harare and Bulawayo. It's reported that at least 25 WOZA members had to seek medical attention after their treatment at the hands of police. One woman had to have three teeth removed after having been struck in the face.

A Newsday journalists was arrested on Monday at Mutare police station where he had gone to make a report after he had been threatened with death by a suspended Zanu PF provincial youth chairman.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights Association says the ZESN crackdown brings to a total of seven civic groups that have fallen victim to police raids within a space of two months.

Meanwhile WOZA activist, Bertha Sibanda, who disrobed inside the Bulawayo police station in protest after she was beaten during their demonstration last week, was released on bail Monday after spending the weekend in detention. Last month a ZANU PF activist Sheila Mutsenhu removed her clothes in front of the US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, protesting the targeted sanctions imposed by western countries. She wasn't arrested.

WOZA said in a statement: "It is clear that if you are a member of Zanu PF you can strip without consequence in front of the American ambassador but if you happen to be a member of WOZA, you are denied access to food, held in police custody for 4 days then you are arraigned before court that will continue to use scarce resources to persecute you by prosecution."

Last week co-Home Affairs Minister Teresa Makone revealed that cabinet had discussed the unwarranted harassment and arrest of innocent citizens.

Although the minister is in charge of the police, she admitted that she does not have the power to make the police respect the rule of law.

Ngwenya said both Makone and deputy Justice Minister Obert Gutu have to make an effort, even if their hands are tied.

"We want to see serious sounds, we want to hear vibrations, we want to hear protests, we want to hear them even talk about litigation. We want to see Teresa Makone getting out meetings with civil society and the police to reassure Zimbabweans."

Ngwenya added: "Even if they do not have any legitimate power to do anything there is nothing that stops them from making the right noises. There is so much lethargy and paralysis in those two ministries that we wonder if they are just sitting on the leeward side of the gravy train and forgetting about the struggle."

When contacted for comment Minister Makone said she was in parliament. We could not reach Gutu or ZANU PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo.

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