Tell Zimbabwe Anti-Riot Police: Real Men Don't Beat Women!

Zimbabwe police officers © APGraphicsBank

Zimbabwe police officers © APGraphicsBank

Pig. Fuzz. 5-0 (as in Hawaii). These are some American slang terms for police. I won’t even get into some of the terms police are referred to around the world. (The Moustached Pagoda? Really Canada?) Despite our affectionate, or not so affectionate, appellations for police officers, they are an invaluable and indispensable part of society and do far more good than harm. Zimbabwe is no exception to this rule-really, the police are usually the good guys. Unless they are acting under order of unscrupulous persons desperate to hold on to power and squash dissent. Sadly, then you see events that have unfolded all to often lately in Zimbabwe; where club wielding anti-riot police go after protestors marching peacefully in the streets.

On a day to day basis in Zimbabwe, police officers go about their business preventing crime and protecting citizens; but these officers are also deployed to repress those same citizens. Students, lawyers, trade unionists, political activists have all felt the unrelenting force of anti-riot batons as they violently disperse Zimbabweans gathering in the streets to demand human rights, equitable treatment, and greater civil liberties.

Because they march so frequently, the members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) are often the target of this violent repression. WOZA is a grass roots movement of primarily women activists that demand a better life for all Zimbabweans through non-violent civic activism. They are grandmothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and cousins who sing and dance in the streets calling for a future for their children, families, friends and neighbors that incorporates strong human rights standards and civil liberties. And because of this, they are frequently violently beaten by the anti-riot police.

This Valentines Day, as WOZA marches in the streets, we are calling on the Zimbabwe anti-riot police to treat the ladies of WOZA as they would want their mother to be treated-with respect. As a police officer you may be ordered to disperse a protest, but you are not required to do so with violence. Send a valentine to the Zimbabwe anti-riot police during the month of February and remind them that real men don’t beat women. Ever.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise March for Education, Member Jailed

Women of Zimbabwe Arise take to the streets in Zimbabwe.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise take to the streets in Zimbabwe.

UPDATE January 25th: Today a delegation of 200 women and men marched again in Bulawayo to deliver the WOZA report regarding the collapse of the education system in the country. Once the ministry of education official had attended and received the report, members began to disperse. As they dispersed, seven riot police officers ran out of the police drill hall and started to beat the peacefully dispersing activists, innocent bystanders and vendors. One member who tried to avoid arrest by walking into the passport office was followed and beaten, after being beaten she was then told to ‘run’ to the drill hall whilst being beaten all the way there. It was finally determined that a total of eleven WOZA members were arrested, however they were released within hours without charge or explanation.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) took to the streets recently demanding education reform in Zimbabwe. In a report published by the organization, WOZA calls for teachers to quit demanding extra money from parents to supplement their income, the Education Ministry must improve the quality of the curriculum including the addition of human rights education, the examination system must be re-vamped and no increase in school fees in 2010.

Over 800 WOZA members marched in Bulawayo on January 13th, singing and chanting the WOZA MOYA! slogan. The demonstration proceeded without violence or arrests but they were not able to deliver their report at the government complex as police dispersed the demonstrators upon arrival. On January 18th-MLK Day, the members of WOZA marched to the Education Ministry offices in Harare and were dispersed, this time by riot police. One WOZA member, a journalist and a bystander were arrested. The demonstration was broken up before WOZA members were able to deliver the report to education minister David Coltart.

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Women of Zimbabwe Arise Report Increased Harassment

Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Last month, Magodonga Mahlangu was awarded the RFK Human Rights Award for the work she does as co-leader of Women of Zimbabwe  Arise (WOZA). Since her return to Zimbabwe, however, she and co-leader Jenni Williams are reporting increased harassment levels by police and Central Intelligence officers. Both Magodonga and Jenni have faced heightened intimidation efforts following past international recognition, but it was hoped that since this award was presented by President Barack Obama along with Ethel Kennedy, it might buy them a little breathing space since even Mugabe has hailed Obama as a pretty cool dude. Clearly Obama’s street cred as a brother will only carry you so far.

Magodonga and Jenni were back in court last week on pending charges from an arrest in October 2008. The Supreme Court verbally ruled almost six months ago that the charges were unconstitutional but has yet to put it in writing. In the spirit of continuing to drag the process out as long as possible, the ladies were now told that their file was missing and the magistrate would not make any ruling without it and these “political cases” are sensitive. Hmmm. Political cases? I seem to remember that Magodonga and Jenni were arrested because they were marching in the streets demanding equitable distribution of food aid. You say political case, I say oppression of human rights defenders. Tomato, tomatoe.

Magodonga and Jenni were ordered to reappear Monday, January 14th. Take Action! Demand justice for Magodonga and Jenni.

An Evolution in Zimbabwe

Women of Zimbabwe Arise, Sarah Hager (Amnesty International USA), White House, November 23, 2009

Women of Zimbabwe Arise, Sarah Hager (Amnesty International USA), White House, November 23, 2009

I had the honor and pleasure of attending the RFK Human Rights Award ceremony last night, hosted by President Obama and Mrs. Obama at the White House, where Magodonga Mahlangu and Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) were recipients of the annual award. I can sum it up in one word: wow. I laughed, I cried, I was disappointed the toilet paper did not have the presidential seal.

In President Obama’s words:

And that may be Magodonga’s greatest achievement — that she has given the women of Zimbabwe each other.  That she has given people who long for peace and justice each other. That she has given them a voice they can only have collectively-and a strength that they can only have together. They are a force to be reckoned with.

I attended in the capacity as nominator of WOZA for the award. Amnesty International works closely with WOZA and they are a special focus case for action here in the US. It was a team effort putting together the information requested by the RFK staff, but it was an easy sell convincing them that Magodonga and WOZA deserved the award. These women redefine inspiring.

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Zimbabwe's Heroes

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Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams of WOZA

Zimbabwe gets a lot of bad press, but not many are aware of some of the amazing people making a difference there every day. These are people, who usually at great personal risk, fight for human rights, civil liberties, justice, equality and a better Zimbabwe for all. So here’s a shout out to some personal heroes of mine and I hope you are equally inspired.  (Feel free to share stories about other amazing human rights heroes in Zim or southern Africa in general in the comment section.)

Betty Makoni
Betty is a teacher who got tired of hearing about the relentless sexual abuse of young girls and decided to do something about it. She started the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe to provide a safe place, healing and support for young girls surviving sexual assault. Many of the girls were victimized because of a belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS. As a result of her efforts, Betty has been targeted by security forces in Zimbabwe and forced to flee the country for her safety. A documentary film tells the story of Betty and the girls she helps. Betty has also been nominated as CNN’s Hero of the Year. You can vote for Betty on CNN’s web site until November 19th. Vote early and often! SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

WOZA Activists Beaten Today in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) took to the streets of Zimbabwe over the last two days to commemorate International Day of Peace. As the flyer they handed out during their march explains,

“[I]t is a year after the global political agreement (GPA) was signed on 15 September 2008. This deal was supposed to bring peace to Zimbabwe. The United Nations theme this year is: Better than a thousand empty words is ONE WORD that brings peace. The GPA contains 6,567 words but we are yet to see if these words really stand for peace. Because we are still waiting for peace, WOZA members decided to choose a theme that shows the politicians how they can bring meaning to their words: Our theme: Social Justice will bring Peace of Mind.”

Over 1,000 members of Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA/MOZA) took to the streets of Harare yesterday. Riot police responded but no arrests or violence occurred. Six simultaneous protests converged on the offices of the United Nations, where a petition asking the UN to help intervene in Zimbabwe to restore the health and education sectors was handed in to officials in the building. The petition also called on the UN to pressure the inclusive government to stop the harassment of vendors and ordinary Zimbabweans by police.

Today at noon in Bulawayo, 1300 human rights defenders came together to repeat yesterday’s march. Their songs were silenced however as riot police swooped, beating women and men alike, to disperse them from reaching their target at Mhlahlandlela Government complex. No arrests have been reported to date but WOZA leaders are still verifying whether everyone returned safely to their homes. One man had to be driven to the hospital as he was unable to walk after being beaten by four riot police at the same time; he has a fracture to his arm and doctors are still waiting to check his leg and lower back. Over twenty other members are also seeking medical treatment at this time for the brutal beatings they received at the hands of police.

A group of men watching the man being beaten tried to mobilise people to beat the police in retaliation. This action was quickly stopped by WOZA members who explained:

“We are non-violent activists and any history should write that the people who disturbed the peace with violence were Zimbabwe Republic Police officers, not peaceful human rights defenders.”

One of those who managed to side step the beatings was Jenni Williams, who proceeded to the government complex. They chanted slogans and left the placards and demands behind before walking peacefully away. A police vehicle was deployed to locate WOZA leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu after a police officer said they should stop beating just anyone and look for the leaders to beat.

Since the power-sharing deal was signed in September 2008, 40 WOZA activists have been arrested on seven separate occasions after peaceful protests, WOZA leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu spent three weeks in Mlondolozi Prison and hundreds of peaceful Zimbabweans citizens were brutally beaten by police for merely speaking out about the hardships in their lives.

I guess if you are beaten every other time you march you are still doing better than when you are beaten EVERY time you march…

Haiku Anniversary Zimbabwe's GPA

Prime Minister Tsvangirai (left) and President Mugabe

Last week Zimbabwe’s Global Political Agreement (GPA) turned one year old. The GPA was negotiated as a political compromise following the violence and contested elections of March-June 2008. And how did the proud parents (the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, which brokered and now guarantees the agreement) and family members (President Mugabe of ZANU-PF, Prime Minister Tsvangirai of MDC-T and Deputy Prime Minister Mutambara of MDC-M) celebrate this milestone? Well, they didn’t. But since every birthday should be commemorated, here’s my retrospective on the year. In haiku.

Mugabe no sign
Gono, Tomana stay on
No rule of law yet

Abuse rise, fall, rise
WOZA beat, arrest
NGOs out, in, threatened

Cholera kills quick
Doctors, teachers strike two times
Still not enough food

Mugabe birthday
MDC
turns 10, remain in GNU?
Press opens slightly

Bank, “yes, stole money
Bank pays money back in poo
Zim struggles for aid

Inflation down, good
Can’t get dollars for food, bad
Unemployment same

Tribunal withdraw
Diamonds, companies stolen
Parliament new vote

Constitution 2010?
Zim turns 30 in 2010, big party?
Growing pains to come

Zimbabwe Justice: No Dancing Babies

The legal system in Zimbabwe isn’t comprised of lawyers in skimpy clothing sharing a unisex bathroom while litigating bizarre and yet fascinating cases. Instead, there is a politicized judiciary, draconian laws designed to stifle dissent and a prison system that would give Auschwitz a run for its money. Amnesty International is monitoring the legal cases of human rights defenders and political activists. Below is an update on some of these cases.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA)-
The leaders of WOZA were arrested and jailed in October 2008 for disturbing the peace during a protest over food aid distribution. Their trial has been continually delayed by both the prosecution and due to a petition the women filed before the Supreme Court asking the charges be dismissed as unconstitutional as Zimbabwe’s Constitution guarantees the right of assembly. The leaders, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu appeared in court yesterday where the magistrate wanted to proceed to trial despite this pending petition. The Supreme Court verbally ruled on June 4th that the arrest was unlawful but a written decision has not yet been produced. The case was finally postponed again until August 17th to wait for the ruling from the Court.

On June 18th, four members of WOZA were viciously beaten by police during a protest to call attention to the plight of informal traders struggling to make a living in Zimbabwe. Yesterday, a court in Harare ruled that the police officers responsible will be charged with assault. The case was postponed to July 13th to allow the officers time to prepare their case. The charges against the four WOZA members of disturbing the peace were dropped the day before.

Jestina Mukoko et al-
Late last year, Jestina Mukoko, head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was abducted from her home, illegally detained, tortured and charged with recruiting persons to participate in alleged militia camps in Botswana. She is one of 18 persons abducted and tortured around this same time and charged with variations of the same crime. On June 25th, the Supreme Court heard a petition from Ms. Mukoko and her co-defendants claiming their arrest was unconstitutional because they were illegally abducted and tortured. The Attorney General’s office admitted that Ms. Mukoko was illegally detained by state security agents but asserted that this should have no bearing on the case. A decision by the Court is still pending.

MDC activists and an independent journalist also on trial filed a petition before the Supreme Court asserting the same claim of unconstitutionality. At the hearing before the High Court, however, the State Security Minister took the opportunity to deny that the defendants, including Mukoko, were illegally detained. The petition was referred on to the Supreme Court. It is assumed that the remaining abductees will file similar complaints and their cases will be remanded until such time as the Supreme Court rules on the pending petitions.

Amnesty Secretary General Dedicates Classic Police Song to Zimbabwe

Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan meets Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, London, 22 June 2009 © Amnesty International

AI's Khan meets Tsvangirai June 2009

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan met with Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai this week as he was wrapping up his world tour and she had just returned from a high level mission to Zimbabwe. As far as I can tell from the picture, there wasn’t actually a karaoke machine in the room, but Khan told Tsvangirai that Amnesty will be watching Zimbabwe closely over the next 100 days, looking for improvements in human rights. Only not in a stalker, creepy way as in the song, but more in line with the on going efforts of Amnesty International to bring to light the conditions that have occurred on the ground in Zimbabwe in recent years.

The severity of the degradation in human rights was on dramatic display during Khan’s visit last week, when civil activist group Women of Zimbabwe Arise staged two protests, one in Bulawayo and one in Harare. Both protests were violently broken up by riot police, resulting in serious injuries. The Harare protest occurred near where Khan was holding a press conference. Not smart to try to convince the world you are making progress on human rights issues and then beat up mothers with their babies and grandmothers in front of the head of one of the world’s largest human rights organization.

While Tsvangirai was in the US, he secured a commitment from Obama for “humanitarian plus” aid. This means increased aid to help the people in Zimbabwe with things like education and healthcare by giving the money to organizations in Zimbabwe as opposed to the government itself. All total, Tsvangirai secured pledges from donor governments amounting to around $180 million to provide some relief in Zimbabwe. This is no where near the amounts needed to begin to rebuild the country, but donor governments remain leery of the ability of the Zimbabwe government to handle direct developmental funding in a tranparent manner. Especially when the same week the new aid commitments are being announced, legislation is introduced in Zimbabwe’s Parliament to provide $30,000 loans to all Parliamentarians to buy brand new cars.

Amnesty International USA endorses the decision of the US government to increase funds that will improve the lives of the citizens of Zimbabwe. The US and international community have an obligation to protect and promote economic, social and cultural rights around the world. But Zimbabwe, we’ll be watching you.

As Zimbabwe turns 29, statements are not enough

As originally posted on the Daily Kos

In advance of talks with Zimbabwe’s finance minister Tendai Biti next weekend in Washington DC, the World Banks Robert Zoellick shared his assessment of the situation:

Zimbabwe is at a very sensitive point and we want it succeed. But that is going to require steps by all of the members of the Zimbabwe’s institutions to restore democracy, restore human rights.

Reading these statements I remembered a recent chat with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) Executive Director Frank Donaghue who was in Zimbabwe a few months ago. His explanations and PHR’s report leave no doubt over the gravity of the situation and who is responsible for ruining the country’s economy – and with it its health system:

The health and healthcare crisis in Zimbabwe is a direct outcome of the malfeasance of the Mugabe regime and the systematic violation of a wide range of human rights, including the right to participate in government and free elections and egregious failure to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health. The findings contained in this report show, at a minimum, violations of the rights to life, health, food, water, and work. When examined in the context of 28 years of massive and egregious human rights violations against the people of Zimbabwe under the rule of Robert Mugabe, they constitute added proof of the commission by the Mugabe regime of crimes against humanity.

At the same conference where I met with PHR, the leaders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) spoke about their human rights activism. WOZA represents some of the country’s most courageous human rights defenders. Compared to them, I feel like a wannabe activist. Harassed several times for their activism, they remain at risk of arbitrary arrest and intimidation. Their commitment and leadership is probably the biggest sign of hope for Zimbabwe, and the least we can do is to show them our support and sympathy, and share their story.

The country’s destroyed health system and the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders are painful reminders how far the country still has to go. The International Crisis Group (ICG) released a new report just moments ago, stating that:

If the international community stands back with a wait-and-see attitude, the unity government is likely to fail, and Mugabe and the military establishment will entrench themselves again. There should be no alternative to engagement to address pressing socio-economic needs, reinforce new hope and prevent a return to violence and repression.

Obviously, the ICG focuses on the major players in international politics and ignores that the international community includes all of us. So if you don’t want to wait for national governments or international institutions to make a move, here’s your opportunity.

By Christoph Koettl, Crisis Prevention and Response Campaigner at Amnesty International USA

DISCLAIMER: the opinions written above are the author’s alone and should not be considered official Amnesty International policy.