Johannesburg — The government of Zimbabwe should immediately end the police crackdown on civil society groups, which has intensified as the country prepares for national elections.
A referendum on March 16, 2013, for a new constitution under the Global Political Agreement for a power-sharing government between the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) paves the way for elections later in the year.
"Police harassment and arrests of civil society activists has worsened as elections get closer," said Tiseke Kasambala, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to stop this police abuse of power and hold those responsible to account."
Since December 2012, the ZANU-PF controlled police have carried out an apparent campaign of politically motivated abuses against civil society activists and organizations, Human Rights Watch said.
On March 17, 2013, police arrested prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa in Harare and charged her with obstructing the course of justice. She remains in detention despite a high court order on March 18 ordering her release. The arrest came after Mtetwa attempted, in the course of her duties as a lawyer, to offer legal assistance to four employees from the prime minister's office whom the police also arrested on March 17. The four employees from the prime minister's office remain in detention and have not been charged.
On March 8 in Harare, Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was charged with leading an unregistered organization under the Private Voluntary Organization (PVO) Act, and with smuggling radios and mobile phones into the country in violation of the Broadcasting Services Act and the Customs and Excise Act. The charges under the PVO Act violate the right to freedom of association, while the other charges appear to be a politically motivated attempt to curtail the group's human rights work.
On February 15, police arbitrarily arrested and detained George Makoni, an employee of the Centre for Community Development in Zimbabwe (CCDZ), and a local pastor for organizing a church meeting in Chegutu, west of Harare. Church meetings do not require any prior notice. Makoni and the pastor were later released without charge.
On February 13 and 14, police in Harare and Bulawayo forcibly disrupted the annual Valentine's Day "love" protests by about 190 members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). The police arrested, detained, and in some cases beat protestors with batons, including the WOZA national coordinator, Jenni Williams. The protesters were released without charge following the intervention of lawyers.
On February 11, in what appears to have been coordinated action, police raided the offices of the National Association of NGOs (NANGO) and Community Tolerance Reconciliation and Development (COTRAD) in Masvingo and the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) offices in Harare.
On March 8, the ZANU-PF-controlled Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced that any civil society organization under police investigation would be barred from monitoring the constitutional referendum and elections. This directive would directly affect the main civil society organizations operating in the country, including ZPP, Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights), Zimbabwe Election Support Network, and Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition.
The recent police actions against civil society groups appear to have had the approval of the highest levels of the police, Human Rights Watch said. At the Senior Police Officers' Conference in November, attended by country's top police officers, an official statement was approved noting "with concern the negative influence and subversive activities" of nongovernmental and civil society organizations in the coming referendums.
The statement resolved to "effectively utilize the intelligence units in monitoring the activities" of organizations; "maintain records of all [organizations] operating in their areas;" "[e]ngage the leaders of these organizations in respect to their activities;" and "[t]ake appropriate action against [organizations] that are found to be operating outside the provisions of the law."
A similar resolution was approved at the ZANU-PF annual conference in December and attended by all security chiefs. ZANU-PF also resolved to "instruct the party to ensure that government enforces the de-registration of errant [organizations] deviating from their mandate."
Soon after these statements were approved, the police began a sustained and apparently systematic campaign to harass and intimidate civil society organizations. On December 13, police raided the offices of ZimRights and arrested four people, including one of the organization's staff. A month later, on January 14, police arrested the ZimRights national director, Okay Machisa, ostensibly in his capacity as director of the organization, on charges relating to a voter registration campaign. Machisa spent over two weeks in detention before being released on bail.
On January 18, the ZANU-PF minister for youth and indigenization, Saviour Kasukuwere, formally approved regulations requiring all youth organizations to be registered with the Zimbabwe Youth Council or to be banned. Under these regulations, no youth organization may receive funding without authorization from the youth council and all members or affiliates of registered youth organizations are required to pay exorbitant annual levies to the youth council. These regulations are likely to cripple the operations of youth organizations throughout the country.
In Bulawayo in January, police arrested and otherwise harassed over 40 members of the National Youths for Democracy Trust after the group began a campaign to encourage citizens to register to vote.
"The systematic police campaign against civil society organizations appears designed to disrupt civil society operations and stop them from the important work of monitoring the human rights environment ahead of the elections," Kasambala said. "The government of Zimbabwe should respect and protect space for unfettered civil society operations."
Human Rights Watch urged the member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to press the Zimbabwean government to permit civil society organizations to be allowed to operate freely without government harassment as a crucial part of creating an environment conducive to holding credible, free, and fair elections.
"Zimbabwe's authorities cannot expect to create a rights-respecting environment ahead of elections in the context of repression, harassment, and intimidation of civil society activists," Kasambala said.