Earlier this week, scores of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) members were arrested and detained by riot police during a march in Bulawayo, including National Coordinator Magadonga Mahlangu. All were eventually released without charge, but the efforts of police to harass and intimidate serve as a reminder of the challenges to practicing freedom of expression and assembly in Zimbabwe.
WOZA members have been conducting a series of protests demanding the draft constitution process be completed and brought to a vote. Currently Zimbabwe does not actually have a constitution. It has operated for 30 years under the Lancaster House agreement, which governed the transition from UK colonial power to self-government.
It has been modified multiple times, but following the political violence of the 2008 elections and the subsequently negotiated Government of National Unity (GNU), it is mandated that a new constitution be drafted and voted on through a referendum process. This process has been delayed multiple times and many civil society organizations in Zimbabwe express concern the process has been politicized and does not adequately reflect rights and government structures desired by Zimbabwean citizens.
April 18th is Zimbabwe National Day. This year, Zimbabwe will commemorate 32 years of independence from colonial rule. While today is a day to celebrate, freedom has its limits in Zimbabwe.
Specifically, the rights to freedom of expression and assembly are sharply curtailed by the government. In March, six people were convicted of “conspiracy to commit public violence.” Just how did they conspire? They gathered with others last year to watch video footage of the Arab Spring events in Egypt and Tunisia.
Jenni leading protest march in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, February 2012. Jenni was arrested for the 40th time that day. Photo courtesy of WOZA.
Every year on March 8th we celebrate International Women’s Day. I have been blessed to know many amazing women in my life: my mom, my sisters, my aunts, my friends. It’s nice there is a day of the year set aside to honor and remember strong, powerful women who make a difference in our world.
Ginetta Sagan was one of those women. Ms. Sagan, once a political prisoner herself, was a fearless and outspoken human rights defender who tirelessly worked to improve the lives of others. Amnesty International USA established a fund in her honor which annually recognizes a woman who, often at great personal risk, dedicates her life to improving the lives of others.
Yesterday, the activists of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) took to the streets in Bulawayo for the 10th consecutive commemoration of Valentine’s Day. Yes, I know it’s a week early; but in Zimbabwe, when you’re trying to keep the riot police from guessing when your peaceful protests will occur, that’s what you have to do. Unfortunately, their plan didn’t work and co-founder Jenni Williams, along with twelve other people including a pregnant woman and minor, were arrested.
WOZA and MOZA (Men of Zimbabwe Arise) use the occasion of Valentine’s Day to confront governmental policies that violate civil and human rights in Zimbabwe and educate their fellow citizens about issues and what can be done. Frequently, WOZA is met with brutal violence at the hands of the riot police. Jenni has been arrested nearly 50 times.
On October 10th, Zimbabwe went before the United Nations Human Rights Council to answer concerns about the country’s human rights record. One issue Amnesty raised in its submission to the Council is the lingering effects of Operation Murambatsvina.
In 2005, the government of Zimbabwe destroyed homes and businesses in informal settlements, displacing an estimated 700,000 people. This is the same as wiping out the entire city of Columbus, Ohio. Since then, the government has failed to address the needs of these people in any meaningful fashion.
On Wednesday, September 21, activists from Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) marched in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to commemorate International Day of Peace. Not seeming to appreciate the irony, police officers violently dispersed the protest, arresting 12 women and injuring several others.
Thursday, 10 of those women were released, but Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlongu remain in jail. They are charged with kidnapping and theft pertaining to some sort of bizarre set of circumstances that is beyond my comprehension at this time.
Jenni and Magodonga appeared in court this morning. Bail was denied and their next hearing is scheduled for October 6th. They will remain imprisoned until that time. Jenni recently had a minor operation which could result in serious complications from infection due to the disgusting sanitary conditions in prison. This ridiculous set of circumstances is a direct reflection of elements of the Zimbabwe government attempting to repress political and social dissent.
By Alaphia Zoyab, Online Communities Officer at Amnesty International.
UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran
At a meeting with NGOs on the side-lines of the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) negotiations in New York, China made the claim that it does not transfer arms to conflict states in Africa. That claim is simply not true and China has clearly forgotten about the notorious ‘Ship of Shame’. We are happy to remind them.
In 2008 a Chinese ship MV An Yue Jiang arrived in Durban in South Africa with a deadly cargo of more than 3000 cases of arms. The cases included nearly 3 million rounds of rifle ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar bombs and mortar launchers, all exported by Poly Technologies Inc. of Beijing. This cargo was destined for the Zimbabwean Defence Force.
Even at nine in the morning on a Friday, when most of us would normally be counting down to the weekend, the energy in the Foundry in Washington, DC is phenomenal. In the sunshine outside, groups color flags in support of Filep Karma, while inside roses and key actions are passed around for signatures. Larry Cox hasn’t even arrived yet, and everyone is already buzzing with excitement.
By the time everyone has settled inside for the opening speeches, the count is well over one hundred Amnesty International activists. The various speakers infect the crowd with even more passion and anticipation, reaching a pinnacle when Larry announces that he has decided that joining us for Get on the Bus is more important than going home to meet with the IRS.
The group splits, half heading to demonstrate for the Women of Zimbabwe (WoZA) at the Zimbabwe Embassy and half for Walid Yunis Ahmad at the Iraqi Consulate. We march in long ovals, chanting and holding our signs, the very picture of peaceful protest. At the Iraqi Consulate, faces peer out from the windows and passers by stop to watch.
In November of last year, the Zimbabwe Supreme Court ruled Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu were wrongfully arrested and detained following a peaceful protest in 2008. As a result, their rights and fundamental freedoms were violated and the state failed to protect them from this abuse.
This was a pretty landmark holding and I am so proud of Jenni and Magodonga for standing up for their rights and the rights of all Zimbabweans; for educating people about their rights, encouraging people to demand those rights, and fighting back through peaceful, legal means when those rights are violated. Unfortunately, because of these efforts, Jenni, Magodonga, the other members of WOZA and MOZA (Men of Zimbabwe Arise) and many other human rights defenders in Zimbabwe are regularly targeted by the police and other government officials.
In February, violence and repression escalated sharply by government actors. Forty-five persons were arrested for gathering to watch video footage of the Egypt and Tunisia uprisings; six continue to face treason charges, punishable by death. Multiple members of WOZA/MOZA have been arrested on the street and in private houses. Both groups of detainees allege torture at the hands of the police. Abel Chikomo, director of Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum is being sought by the police and today was charged with running an illegal organization.
And police have visited the residences of Jenni and Magodonga several times. A human rights lawyer at court representing other WOZA/MOZA detainees was told by police to inform Jenni and Magodonga they should prepare for a long detention…in a men’s prison because they are too strong of women to be contained in the women’s prison. As Jenni pointed out, a perverse sort of compliment.
It’s time for everyone to be equally strong and demand security sector reform in Zimbabwe. It’s time for everyone to be strong and demand Zimbabwe’ unity government guarantor’s take steps to end political violence in Zimbabwe. It’s time to stand strong in solidarity with Jenni and Magodonga and demand police do what the Supreme Court said they must: protect the citizens of Zimbabwe. Help keep Jenni, Magodonga and all Zimbabweans safe from abuse by taking action now!
There is an antidote to the weariness, cynicism and paralysis perpetuated by the heartless churn of our 24-hour news cycle: Just listen to the voices of those who walk the razor’s edge each day as they fight to change the world. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed Amnesty activists by phone at the end of Day 2 of our 50th anniversary conference, graciously acknowledging the role of grassroots activism in her release after 15 years of detention by the military junta and encouraging us not to forget the 2,000-plus political prisoners who remain locked up in Burma.
Her brief address was followed by a riveting speech by Jenni Williams, co-founder of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, a group of women who have been jailed, tortured and persecuted for their non-violent demonstrations to demand social justice. Williams recalled one August night when police abducted seven WOZA members. “The phone calls started at 3 a.m. We heard our members had been arrested in suburbs, so we called Amnesty International. By 12 noon, all seven members were delivered back to their homes by the same police officers who had abducted them,” said Williams.
Earlier in the day, I spotted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof listening to similarly harrowing tales at the well-attended panel discussion, “Muzzling the Watchdogs,” featuring Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi. All three had been arrested, imprisoned and persecuted for their work to expose injustice, and each was the subject of Amnesty International urgent actions and/or international letter campaigns demanding their freedom.