16 May 2013

Zimbabwe: Election Group Charged for Encouraging Youths to Register As Voters

Election watchdog the Election Resource Centre (ERC) is the latest organisation to fall victim to the country's overzealous police force, after the group was accused of breaking the country's electoral laws.

This follows the arrest on Saturday of three ERC staff for conducting the '1st Time Voter Generation' campaign which is aimed at encouraging youths to register as voters in the forthcoming polls.

Farai Saungweme, Wadzanai Nyaku and Moses Chikura, were released on Monday, after ERC director Tawanda Chimhini handed himself in to the police.

After recording a statement from Chimhini, the police decided to charge the organisation rather than the three staffers who will now appear as state witnesses.

The ERC is accused of conducting voter education without the permission of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), breaking the Zimbabwe Electoral Act.

Chimhini said the arrests came as a surprise since their campaign is a "first-time voter mobilisation exercise which has been running since last year June, and not a voter education programme" as charged.

Chimhini denied that the ERC was conducting a subversive exercise and said in the 10 years that this organisation has been involved in voter awareness programmes, it has never sought to take the place of ZEC.

He told SW Radio Africa Thursday: "We believe our work is critical to the electoral process, especially as there is limited information on the mobile registration process now

"While we strive to cooperate with the police and the electoral commission, we will also continue to engage young people so that they are aware of the process and that they also register as voters."

Chimhini revealed that since the Saturday arrests, discussions have been held with ZEC on how civic organisations can work with the Commission and help to ease the capacity challenges that the electoral body has reported.

He said: "In this country elections are always a sensitive issue, but we believe that the responsibility to ensure credible, free and fair election does not lie only with ZEC but also with all the groups and individuals who are interested in the electoral process.

"If the process is to reflect the will of the people, then there has to be active engagement with those people. So far, ZEC has not comprehensively done that," he added.

Chimhini added his voice to growing calls for the extension of the mobile voter registration exercise which ends on Sunday, saying it had "clearly failed to meet the demand".

ZEC chairperson Rita Makarau on Monday indicated that the exercise will be extended by another 30 days, as provided for in the new constitution, soon to become the country's supreme law. Makarau's statements came in the wake of chaotic scenes she encountered during a tour of some registration centres in Harare.

Meanwhile three MDC-T youths who were arrested in Bulawayo Wednesday for allegedly trying to 'usurp' the powers of the Registrar General's office, were questioned and released without charge.

Cabangani Tshuma, Willard Nsingo and Masiza Ndlovu, who were also involved in voter mobilisation, were picked up at Mahlathini Primary School in Cowdray Park. It is understood that the three were targeted because they had copies of registration receipts of 23 people, whom they had encouraged to register.

According to their lawyer, the three had received donations from well-wishers to go and register, so they were going to show their sponsors the receipts as proof.

SW Radio Africa's correspondent Lionel Saungweme said it seems that the police are under instruction to disrupt all voter awareness programmes carried out by any organisation other than ZEC.

Since the beginning of the year, Zimbabwe's security agents have been on a warpath against NGOs, accusing them of promoting a regime change agenda.

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