SINCE the closure of the Daily News, routine reports that cannot find a place in the weekly papers are not finding their way into the public domain. As a result the public is not as info
rmed as it should be about reactions to events here. I am therefore this week devoting some space to filling that gap, at the same time revealing something of the international consensus that is emerging on Zimbabwe’s persistent abuse of human rights and violation of its international commitments.
The South African Communist Party is a key partner of the ANC, together with Cosatu, in South Africa’s governing tripartite alliance. Despite the occasional dispute, SACP members are influential at all levels of the South
African government and in parliament and the trade unions. Their views on the situation in Zimbabwe are therefore of importance. Below is the party’s response to the arrest of Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union members who tried to demonstrate recently against economic conditions:
“The authorities in Harare need to know that there is widespread outrage in South Africa about the detention of trade unionists, the closure of newspapers, and the brutal harassment of civilians, including very worrying reports about the systematic rape of women and girls by rampaging youth militias.
“The priority task within Zimbabwe is the fostering of a climate of tolerance and respect for the law, a climate that will support rapid progress in the bilateral talks between Zanu PF and the MDC. This is a challenge thatconfronts all Zimbabweans, but it is a particular responsibility of those in authority.”
At the same time the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions had this to say on the situation in Zimbabwe:
“The ICFTU has lodged a protest with the International Labour Organisation over the wave of anti-union arrests and violent assaults being carried out in Zimbabwe by the country’s government…The government’s action is the latest in a string of attacks on the trade union movement, and takes place as the ZCTU and its affiliates were about to undertake a series of peaceful protests against spiralling transport and fuel costs, tax hikes, a drastic shortage of cash and ongoing violations of trade union and human rights by the regime.
“Zimbabwe is a country in deepcrisis, and the actions of President Mugabe’s government are those of a desperate regime. Only when human and trade union rights are fully respected, and the people of Zimbabwe can live in conditions of full respect for democracy, can the enormous task ofrebuilding the country’s economy really begin”, said ICFTU General Secretary Guy Ryder. The ICFTU represents 158 million workers in 231 affiliated organisations in150 countries.
Also attracting international attention this week – and deservedly so – was the brutal assault by a police officer on prominent lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa.
The New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights has called for a full independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the alleged beating which Mtetewa says occurred at Borrowdale police station.
“All persons responsible for serious human rights abuses must be held accountable, including members of the security forces,” said Neil Hicks, Director of the Lawyers Committee’s Human Rights Defenders Project. “A prompt, thorough and independent investigation into the alleged assault on Beatrice Mtetwa must be carried out, and those responsible should be criminally prosecuted.
“Mtetwa, who is an outspoken advocate for greater respect for basic rights and has represented many individuals targeted by the government, filed a sworn statement on October 15, saying that a police officer beat her severely -at times in plain sight of other officers who did nothing to stop the blows. She reports that she summoned the police after an attempted car-jacking on October 12. But rather than pursue the thieves, the police allegedly detained her, claiming that she was driving while intoxicated.
Mtetwa demanded the administration of a breathalyser and blood test, but no tests were carried out. Instead, she alleges, a police officer beat her in the back of a police vehicle and the beating continued, in plain sight of other officers, when they arrived at the Borrowdale police station. She subsequently received medical treatment for the injuries sustained to her head, face, arms, back and thighs. She later identified the police officer who beat her and filed a complaint against him with the commanding officer at Borrowdale police station.
‘This latest attack is part of apattern,” Hicks said, “where-by lawyers in Zimbabwe who pro-vide legal representation to government critics, members of the political opposition, or other individuals who are unpopular with the authorities are targeted for abuse.
“Earlier this year,” Hicks noted, “Ms Mtetwa represented Andrew Meldrum, the Guardian journalist who was illegally deported from Zimbabwe despite a court order. In March of this year, Gugulethu Moyo, attorney for the now-banned Daily News, Zimbabwe’s last independent daily newspaper, was also physically assaulted at a police station. In addition to these serious physical attacks, lawyers in Zimbabwe are routinely threatened and verbally insulted, as well as being denied access to their clients or otherwise obstructed.
“These are serious allegations of police brutality and they ought to be investigated seriously,” said Hicks. “We are concerned that this action was meant not just to intimidate Mtetwa, but to send a message to all Zimbabweans who might be inclined to stand up for their rights.”
He continued: “Attacking such a high profile figure – and getting away with it – suggests that no one is safe from these sorts of brutal acts.”
That is the conclusion now being drawn by everybody. Ministers have been vocal recently in claiming that Zimbabwe is a country in which the rule of law is observed. At least, that has been their pretext for closing down newspapers. But it is repeatedly said that people seeking the protection of the police quickly become their victims. That is a recipe for a complete collapse of confidence in the force, something we would assume the police wish to avoid.
Mtetwa’s case has thus become emblematic. It is obvious the rule of law is upheld only when it suits those in power. Ordinary people don’t enjoy its protection. And defenders of civic rights can expect to become its targets.
What sort of law is that?