Zimbabwe: Where Freedom Isn’t Free

Activists, such as Jenni Williams of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) can be imprisoned in Zimbabwe for peaceful demonstrations (Photo Credit: Amnesty International).

Activists, such as Jenni Williams of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) can be imprisoned in Zimbabwe for peaceful demonstrations (Photo Credit: Amnesty International).

By Simeon Mawanza, Amnesty International Zimbabwe Researcher

On Friday, April 18, 2014, Zimbabwe commemorates 34 years of independence. As usual, there will be the official gatherings and speeches to remind us of the journey to independence.

Amid all the pomp and ceremony, I dare remind people that Zimbabwe remains a country where organizing a peaceful protest can land you behind bars.

Two things happened this week reminding us of the many human rights challenges facing the country today.

In Rusape, on April 14, a ruling ZANU-PF party provincial official reportedly disrupted a public meeting by the government’s Information and Media Panel of Inquiry. The ruling party official disrupted the meeting because he had not been officially told about it. Is it not odd that a non-state actor could stop an official meeting with total impunity?

The Rusape incident is just one of the many unreported restrictions of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Zimbabwe I hear when speaking to human rights defenders.

In rural areas one cannot hold a meeting without being sanctioned by local ZANU-PF party officials. These officials appear to be above the law, as demonstrated in the Rusape incident. Police appear unwilling or unable to act against such clearly unlawful interferences.

The second incident was in the town of Masvingo on April 15, where Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) deployed its lawyers following the arrest of two activists for allegedly organizing a demonstration to protest poor service delivery.

Law enforcement agents alleged that Tamutswa Chikonyora and Prosper Tiringindi, affiliated to the United Masvingo Residents and Ratepayers Association, led residents to stage an unsanctioned demonstration in an attempt to hand over a petition to the historic town’s mayor.

It is disturbing when police suppress people’s freedom to demonstrate against poor service delivery. Police must respect the rights of citizens to freely assemble and peacefully protest. No one should be arrested or detained even for a short period of time for simply demanding that they receive better services from their local authority.

These two incidents are just some examples of the human rights challenges that need to be addressed by the ZANU-PF government under its new mandate if it is to convince Zimbabweans and the rest of the world of its commitment to the fundamental freedoms contained in the new constitution. Everyone in Zimbabwe must benefit from the fruits of independence which include the freedom to freely associate and express their views.

The problem of non-state actors, in the form of local ruling party officials, acting above the law must be addressed. It is the conduct of these ruling party officials that spoils the essence of Independence Day.

I quote from the words of then Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, of the newly independent Republic of Zimbabwe on independence eve in 1980:

“Our independence must thus not be construed as an instrument vesting individuals or groups with the right to harass and intimidate others into acting against their will. It is not the right to negate the freedom of others to think and act, as they desire.”

After the July 2013 elections, ZANU-PF got a new five-year mandate. The controversy of that election aside, there are real expectations for this government to show that it is turning a new page in how it treats the citizens. We all want to see an end to harassment and intimidation of people who hold divergent views.

ZANU-PF was re-elected under a new constitution. The constitution signed into law in May 2013 has provisions in the Declaration of Rights meant to increase people’s freedom to expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Throughout its life, this government will be judged against its commitment to the provisions of the new constitution. Zimbabweans will expect all the institutions of the state to respect the constitution.

Yes, ZANU-PF is the majority party in parliament. That dominant position in Zimbabwe’s politics comes with the responsibility to ensure the government lives by the regional and international human rights standards that bind it.

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