Police must stick to the law

ZIMBABWEANS must thank police spokesman, assistant commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena for telling us what we already know. In an unusually candid response to claims by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change last week that the

y were being prevented from holding meetings, Bvudzijena said this was not the case. It was not the duty of the police to stop a party from holding a meeting, he said. According to the Public Order and Security Act promulgated in January 2002, Section 24 requires persons or parties planning to hold a gathering to notify the police of this. There is nothing sinister in this requirement.

Bvudzijena last week stressed the same point when he said: “The police are only notified but they do not stop any meeting or rallies. There are instances where some rallies clash and the police indicate alternative dates. They never force people to cancel meetings or rallies.”

It is vitally important to have this clarification as we move towards a crucial election that will determine whether Zimbabwe rejoins the community of democratic states or remains an international outcast. Bvudzijena made these comments after the MDC was allegedly forced to abandon a regional campaign strategic meeting for its MPs in Matabeleland. Officers from the law and order section allegedly stormed the venue and said they wanted to sit through the deliberations. What we ask is whether it is the duty of the police to attend the private meetings of political parties once they have been notified about them? What business of theirs is it?

If this was an isolated incident we would dismiss it as the act of overzealous individuals. Unfortunately that is not the case.

There are numerous incidents of opposition party officials being arrested and detained for allegedly holding illegal meetings.

Last month Makokoba MP Thokozani Khuphe and other MDC officials were arrested for holding unauthorised meetings. Lovemore Madhuku and his NCA supporters have been arrested and detained on several occasions under Posa although no charges have stuck. The same can be said of Women of Zimbabwe Arise.

We are detailing these incidents not because we want to make a case for the opposition. These acts of harassment are simply incompatible with a democracy. Moreover, the Public Order and Security Act requires one to merely notify the police of a planned meeting, and never to ask for permission.

Declaring any meeting of which the police have not been informed illegal suggests that one needs express permission and that the police are the issuing authority of such a permit. This is a gross misinterpretation of Posa and against the spirit of the legislative authority.

It is the duty of senior police officers to correctly interpret the law to their juniors if the force is to escape the stricture of partisan application of the law. This is moreso when there are claims that the ruling party does not always have to notify the police of its meetings.

We have in fact seen Zanu PF supporters staging “spontaneous” demonstrations in the city centre here in Harare and the police dutifully providing loyal escort. At one time the demonstrators went on to smash the doors to the MDC’s offices at Harvest House while the police stood guard. These have never been declared illegal.

We would be the last to encourage anyone to break a law — even a bad law. Our only plea is that if the law is inconvenient for the ruling party, it is equally inconvenient for the opposition. The police must remain neutral and make the law bad for everyone.

Those coming into the country to observe the parliamentary election on March 31 will quickly pick on cases of partial enforcement of the law in their reports. This also applies to the way the police deal with cases of lawlessness in general and politically-motivated violence in particular.

It is one thing for President Robert Mugabe to appeal for zero-tolerance for political violence and quite another for the police to ensure this is so. An impression should not be created that Mugabe is playing to the gallery to please foreigners while on the ground it is hell on earth for those challenging his party in a legitimate electoral contest.

Zimbabwe cannot afford another five years of international isolation and internal recrimination just because the police cannot be trusted to balance issues of security and of freedom of association and assembly.
The police should not arrogate unto themselves the power to issue permits that they do not have at law just to please Zanu PF.

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