Aung San Suu Kyi Speaks to Amnesty International Activists

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.

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Poor Healthcare Endangering Mothers in Zimbabwe

Mother and child outside her home in Hopley Settlement, Harare, Zimbabwe.

Lack of access to appropriate prenatal and post-natal care in informal settlements in Zimbabwe is endangering mothers and increasing infant mortality rates. Forced into unsafe dwellings with no heat or running water when the government displaced 700,000 people in 2005, for women in these Zimbabwe communities pregnancy is a scary proposition.

According to Amnesty International research, “Although thousands of people have been living at Hopley for more than five years, there are no maternal or newborn health services in the community. Women often give birth in unhygienic conditions in their plastic shacks and without skilled birth attendants. In order to reach maternal health services, women have to travel to a municipal clinic in the suburb of Glen Norah, about 8km away.”

There is no ambulance service to these communities, forcing women to walk to the clinic while in labor because they cannot afford a taxi or bus. Women frequently give birth at home, unaided and alone. The women Amnesty interviewed stated they were aware of the importance of medical care during pregnancy and after delivery, but due to costs and inaccessibility, they were not able to seek this vital healthcare. Inability to afford healthcare affects 75% of women in the lowest five wealth groups in Zimbabwe, of which most of the residents in these informal settlements fall.

Further, 45% of mothers in Zimbabwe have no access to a postnatal check by a trained health provider. Amnesty International documented the deaths of 21 infants in a six month period in 2010. Adequate living conditions and access to necessary health services after delivery could have prevented many of these deaths.

We need to demand the Zimbabwean government takes care of its women and children. Tell government officials of the importance of providing affordable healthcare, placed in the community. No more women should have to give birth alone and then watch their babies die.

Flash Protests in Zimbabwe

WOZA women LOVE sign

A flash mob is a” group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment and/or satire.” Flash mobs might be pointless and designed to entertain, but Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) borrowed the concept today for a very different purpose.

To commemorate International Women’s Day, 500 dedicated  WOZA and MOZA (Men of Zimbabwe Arise) activists formed “flash protests” in downtown Bulawayo. Unlike typical WOZA protests where activists sing, march and converge on a central target where they practice peaceful civil disobedience in the face of police presence, today five individual protests sprang up and dispersed as soon as police presence appeared. There was a reason today’s protests were different-Zimbabwe police continue to actively target WOZA members.

Just this past weekend, four more members were arrested at private homes, detained for two nights and beaten by police. One woman, a nursing mother, was unable to hold or feed her child when visited by family members. Today WOZA reported high numbers of police presence who accused them of trying to incite a revolution. Following dispersal by police, the protestors went to the local court in solidarity with the four women being detained. They were victorious-the magistrate dropped all charges.

The flash protests, WOZA demanded President Zuma of South Africa take a more active stance in his role as guarantor of Zimbabwe’s negotiated unity government and end the violence. Amnesty is making a similar call to President Zuma to ensure political violence does not escalate further and elections are free and fair. Raise your voice with WOZA and send a message to President Zuma. Tell him there should be no voting violence in Zimbabwe.

(By the way, if you don’t get the whole flash mob thing, don’t worry, I don’t get it either. But here is a really funny link anyway.)

Women of Zimbabwe Arise Hunted by Police

Women of Zimbabwe Arise marching in Harare, Zimbabwe

In the last two days, members of civil rights organization WOZA have been targeted and arrested by police in Zimbabwe. Seven members of WOZA and MOZA (Men of Zimbabwe Arise) were arrested yesterday at private homes. They were not engaging in any activity in violation of the law, although three are accused of smoking marijuana based on having “black hands.”

One of the women arrested yesterday is a nursing mother who has been denied access to her child. When visited today by family, several of those arrested indicated they were subjected to beatings on the soles of their feet. This is a torture method called falanga and is a common instrument in the torture arsenal of Zimbabwe police.

Today, 14 more women were arrested. Four are WOZA members, the other 10 are not. They were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place was a meeting to contribute $1 to a burial society fund. At this time, not all of these women are accounted for as they have been taken to several different police stations. According to WOZA “police officers, some in full riot gear, visited the homes of another 6 members but they were not home.”

This is clear evidence of the increasing harassment and intimidation of civil society. I also believe the Zimbabwe police are actively hunting for WOZA leadership (but this is my personal opinion so please take it as such). At this time, we are not instituting any action until we have further information but please continue to press President Zuma of South Africa to ensure anticipated voting in Zimbabwe is free, fair and without further violence. I will update with more information when available.

Escalating Political Violence in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Riot Police In City Centre Intersection

[UPDATE: Four WOZA activists, three women and one man, were arrested today at the home of a WOZA member. The charges or reason for the arrests is unknown, other than the continuing harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders.]

Last weekend, a group of individuals in Zimbabwe gathered to watch footage of the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, discuss the impact of these events and speculate what implication they might pose for the African continent as a whole. Instead of a peaceful, academic discussion unfolding, police broke up the meeting and arrested 45 individuals. At least seven of these persons have been beaten while in custody, including Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former opposition parliamentarian. All persons have been charged with treason, a crime punishable by death.

Amnesty International has noted an alarming increase in politically motivated violence, beginning in 2010. While Women of Zimbabwe Arise were able to conduct their annual Valentine’s Day marches this year without interference by riot police, other recent incidents point to a dangerous trend. ZANU-PF, President Mugabe’s political party, is increasingly carrying out violent attacks against supporters of the MDC, the political opposition party. Human Rights Watch reports

“Credible sources from civil society informed Human Rights Watch that in recent months, ZANU-PF youth have attacked scores of people, mainly MDC supporters, in the high-density neighborhoods of Harare, as well as areas outside of Harare such as Chitungwiza, Gutu, and Bikita. Local civil society organizations alleged that the police were arresting the victims of the violence – many of whom are from the MDC – instead of the perpetrators, who they say are mainly from ZANU-PF.”

Escalating violence in rural areas has sent refugees fleeing into Mozambique. President Zuma of South Africa, appointed guardian of the negotiated unity government between ZANU-PF and MDC, is conducting talks relating to expected votes planned for later this year or early next year regarding a constitutional referendum and purported presidential elections. Amnesty USA, in solidarity with WOZA, urged activists to send messages to President Zuma insisting all prospective votes be conducted free of violence and in line with international obligations. It’s not too late. You can still send those messages. Arresting people for watching videos demonstrates those messages are more important than ever.

Vote for Love in Zimbabwe!

Help Zimbabwe Vote for Love this Valentines Day!

I confess-I think Valentines Day is a scam perpetrated by men to buy forgiveness for all the things they mess up the rest of the year by presenting you with bouquet of convenience store flowers. Luckily, the members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) are far less jaded. Every year they take to the streets on in Zimbabwe on Valentines Day, urging political leaders to remember the power of love is greater than the love of power.

This year, celebrating their ninth year of peaceful protest, 1800 members marched in Bulawayo on Friday-their biggest gathering to date. They sang and danced their way to the offices of the state run newspaper, calling attention to the need for free and open access to the media. This will be particularly important this year as Zimbabwe moves toward a vote on a new constitution and expected Presidential elections. Open access by all candidates to the media is critical in ensuring a free and fair election.

As the WOZA members marched, they passed out Valentines to bystanders with messages regarding constitutional reform. You can help WOZA spread the message about the need for open media access and free and fair elections by sending a Valentine to South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma. President Zuma is appointed by regional leaders to supervise Zimbabwe’s negotiated interim government and upcoming elections. Our Valentines urge him to take steps to ensure all votes are free of violence and intimidation.

Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections saw high levels of political violence, with human rights defenders like WOZA, civil society members and political opposition figures particularly targeted. Amnesty is concerned about continuing levels of violence and the great potential for extreme violence to return surrounding any votes. Take action to keep WOZA members and all Zimbabweans safe as they go to the polls. Help Zimbabwe vote for love. Find our Valentine to President Zuma here.

Jenni Williams of WOZA Arrested in Zimbabwe

Jenni Williams-Women of Zimbabwe Arise

[UPDATE 10:00: Jenni has been released. Just another effort on the part of the Zimbabwe police to intimidate human rights defenders. Thank you to everyone for standing in solidarity through your phone calls on her behalf. ]

This morning, the 83 activists who spent two nights in jail at Harare Central, were released on bail after being charged with “criminal nuisance.” Jenni Williams, National Coordinator of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) met the activists across the street, along with other leadership members, to greet them upon their release. While speaking with the activists to determine who needed medical assistance, police approached the group and demanded Jenni accompany them into the police station.

She is accused of “addressing a gathering” and being held at the Magistrate’s Court until transport can be provided to Harare Central. WOZA has filed suit against members of Zimbabwe’s government over conditions at Harare Central. Jenni and 70 other WOZA activists were arrested and detained at Harare Central in April. Below is information provided in their complaint:

“When they got to the cells, their senses were assaulted by the choking smell of human excreta, and flowing urine of varying colours. Even the beds were covered with human excreta, so they sat and spent the night huddled in the corridors of the cells, as they could not sit inside the cells due to the faeces. However, even the corridor itself had flowing urine and they had to use their own tissues, to clean up the area where they planned to sit on.”

Please call Harare Central and demand that Jenni be released immediately! 011 +263 4 777777

Zimbabwe Irony: WOZA Protest Police Violence, Arrested

Women of Zimbabwe Arise

[UPDATE: The 83 activists will remain in custody a second night. They are charged with obstructing traffic. At least that’s a new one. And I had just accused the ZRP of being predictable…]

Today is International Day of Peace.  To commemorate the occasion, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) took to the streets yesterday in Harare and today in Bulawayo. Their mission: raise awareness about the issue of police misconduct in Zimbabwe. In response to the peaceful march, police arrested 83 protestors, almost as if they were trying to help prove WOZA’s point. You’d think the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) would get tired of being so predictable.

On Monday, 600 women and men marched in the streets of Harare,  first to Parliament and then on to Harare Central Police Station in solidarity after the initial arrests. The aim of the peaceful protest was to highlight community safety issues and police misconduct. Last month, 250 people in a Harare suburb were forcibly evicted by the police in the middle of the night. Last weekend, violence marred a constitutional consultation session in Harare.

In addition to these recent incidents, WOZA observed police behavior in select communities in Bulawayo and Harare for four months. Below is a sampling of the conduct they observed. Way to keep it classy, ZRP.

“WOZA members observed police officers beating suspects in public; harassing vendors and taking their goods for their own use; demanding and accepting bribes; drinking in uniform in public, and making people under arrest ‘run’ in front of their motor bikes and/or horses to the police station.”

The 83 WOZA members arrested spent last night in cells at Harare Central Police Station and remain there at the time of this posting. Harare Central is super disgusting and WOZA is currently suing the co-Ministers of Home Affairs over the filthy and inhumane conditions. There is also word that a member of MOZA (Men of Zimbabwe Arise) was severely beaten while in custody last evening. Fortunately, there are no reported arrests of the 1200 activists who marched in Bulawayo today.

WOZA is asking people to please phone Harare Central Police Station at +263 4 777777 to demand that the activists be released immediately.

A Big Mac or a House?

Residents of an informal settlement in Harare's suburb of Gunhill survey the burnt shells of their homes after police forcibly evicted them and set fire to their shacks in August 2010.

Apparently McDonald’s is eyeing Zimbabwe as a potential new market for its franchise restaurants. While this can be viewed as a positive step in international regard for the stability of Zimbabwe both politically and economically, I don’t think the 250 people rendered homeless last week are as optimistic.

In the early morning hours of August 25th, Zimbabwe police officers entered an informal settlement in the suburbs of Harare and gave residents 10 minutes to gather their possesssions before torching their homes. As if being woken in the middle of the night and told to get out isn’t scary enough, the police came armed with weapons and dogs. Fifty-five people, including 5 children, were detained without access to lawwyers until later that day. This is not the first time police raided this community, exhibiting a clear pattern of harassment by authorities. The families have since returned, but are living in the open, exposed to the elements with no access to shelter.

In 2005, the Zimbabwe government evicted approximately 700,000 people from homes and informal businesses. Very few received any compensation. The government built a few houses in rural areas to resettle those displaced, but the vast majority, including many of those displaced last week, continue to find shelter where they can. On the eve of World Habitat Day next month, this continuing disregard by the Zimbabwe government to respect the right to housing is deplorable. The people of Zimbabwe would like human rights to go with their fries.

Activist Held for Exposing Violations in Diamond Fields of Zimbabwe

Over the long weekend we learned that human rights activist Farai Maguwu has been held by the Zimbabwean government for exposing human rights violations being committed by security forces in some of the country’s richest diamond fields.

Maguwu turned himself in to the police on June 3 after members of his family were beaten and interrogated by state officials.

He is being held under the charges of “publishing or communicating false information prejudicial to the state,” after he reportedly told a diamond trade monitor about human rights violations carried out by security forces in the Marange diamond fields.

On Friday, a Harare Magistrate denied Farai Maguwu bail after the state prosecutor said more time was needed to complete investigations.

We are calling on the Zimbabwean government to release Maguwu immediately.   Erwin van der Borght, Amnesty International’s Africa director, said, “Farai Maguwu is being persecuted for carrying out his lawful work of monitoring and documenting alleged human rights violations… We consider [him] to be a prisoner of conscience and call on the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally.”

To help Amnesty’s efforts, take action and write to Johannes Tomana, Attorney General of Zimbabwe, on behalf of Farai Maguwu.