A HUMAN rights record disfigured by countless unresolved cases has left rights activists questioning Zimbabwe’s sincerity in setting up a human right
“We do not need another commission as there is nothing to gain from such an institution,” says human rights lawyer, Alec Muchadehama.
“It is simply a way of diverting people’s attention and a reaction to local lawyers having to resort to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”
A fortnight ago, Zimbabwe relinquished its seat on the Geneva-based UN Commission for Human Rights, purportedly to give one of its southern African neighbours a chance to represent the region on the international body, according to Boniface Chidyausiku, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to the UN.
But observers said the decision was meant to cushion the impact of an inevitable failure to secure election to the new UN Human Rights Council because of continued human rights violations.
The new body is set to replace the UNCHR which has been discredited for hosting states that are serial rights abusers. Zimbabwe’s presence on the body has long been a source of annoyance to those who accuse President Robert Mugabe’s government of routinely flouting human rights.
Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, fired a diplomatic salvo before the elections for the new body when he said he expected UN member-states to take into account “each candidate’s contributions”.
Each member, he said, should “not only pledge commitment to human rights, but also their record in this regard should be taken into account”.
Muchadehama says government should abide by court orders and rein in its agents rather than institute a commission that only panders to its whims.
“We have an Anti-Corruption Commission but corruption is on the increase. Government cannot establish a commission to deal with its own abuses. Government needs merely to empower the courts to deal with incidents of human rights abuse unfettered,” Muchadehama says.
Anyone who doubts Zimbabwe’s record of abuse need look no further than a litany of glaring examples of cases that government has done little to resolve.
For instance, opposition activist Tonderai Machiridza died in hospital on Independence Day in 2003 from injuries received while he was in police custody.
Machiridza died five days after being arrested by police in Chitungwiza along with three other MDC supporters on allegations of harassing a police officer during a two-day stayaway organised by the opposition MDC.
After a court application, the High Court ruled that he should be released on bail to receive better medical treatment. Despite him naming a Sergeant Chikwizo as one of his assailants before he died, nothing was done to bring the policeman to book.
The case of two Standard journalists — the late editor Mark Chavunduka and senior reporter Ray Choto — who were abducted and tortured by the military after the paper carried a story alleging a coup plot in the army, has not been fully investigated despite a judicial order.
In a typical response, the then Defence minister, Moven Mahachi, when told that the journalists had been tortured, scoffed at the claims: “The journalists scratched themselves and claimed they had been assaulted.”
A court-ordered investigation into the torture claim was never concluded despite assurances from the Attorney-General.
Others like Gabriel Shumba, then a lawyer with the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, were arrested in January 2003, including opposition MP for St Mary’s Job Sikhala.
Shumba was forced into exile where he now heads the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum in South Africa.
In moving testimony to the US Congressional Committee on International Relations in March 2004, Shumba related how riot police armed with AK-47s, teargas canisters, grenades and dogs stormed the room in which he was holding consultations with his client Sikhala. The officers were accompanied by plain-clothes policemen, soldiers and personnel from the CIO.
Charges of treason against Shumba, his brother Bishop and Sikhala, were dismissed by magistrate Caroline Ann Chigumira who ruled that there was no legal basis to press ahead because the document which formed the basis of the charge had been written under duress.
No investigation into the torture of Shumba, Sikhala and those arrested with them is known to have taken place despite assurances given to President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria.
No one has ever been charged in connection with the crime. Unable to obtain justice within Zimbabwe, Shumba took his case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights which has spoken out against the country for its rights abuses.
In April 2004 police in Harare brutally assaulted student activist Tinashe Chimedza when he arrived to speak at an education forum. Police detained him at the venue and assaulted him with batons, boots and open palms before charging him with assaulting a police officer.
At Marlborough police station police verbally abused lawyers representing Chimedza and one lawyer was briefly detained without charge.
No investigation has been conducted into the assault. Like countless others, no one has ever been charged in connection with the incident.
Lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa was assaulted at a police station by a Zanu PF adherent in October 2003.
But the most notorious incident of government looking the other way while citizens rights are violated by a partisan police force and security operatives has been that of MDC activists Talent Mabika and Tichaona Chiminya.CIO operative Joseph Mwale is alleged to have led a group of Zanu PF supporters who petrol-bombed the two aides of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the run-up to the 2000 general election.
Chiminya and Mabika were burnt to death at Murambinda growth point while campaigning for Tsvangirai in Buhera North, later won by Zanu PF’s Kenneth Manyonda.
Last year three other accused persons in the case, Webster Gwama, Bernard Makuwe and Morris Cainos (alias Kitsiyatota), were indicted on two counts of murder but their trial has not started.
Last week the Attorney-General’s office assured lawyers for Tsvangirai that the Mwale case was being pursued.