Human Rights Violations Escalate As Police Enforce Lockdown

Bulawayo residents’ woes have been heightened during Covid-19 induced lockdown by police brutality, harassment and cruel treatment, as the state security agents violate fundamental human rights. An investigation by this publication unearthed shocking and disturbing human rights violations in Bulawayo committed by the police and the military deployed to ensure total compliance with Covid-19 regulations and restrictions.

Government, in late March, announced a lockdown to curb the spread of the contagious novel Coronavirus. The shutdown included restrictions such as a night curfew, exemption letters, intercity travel prohibition and a ban on informal vendors and private owned commuter omnibuses.

The coronavirus, originating in Wuhan, China last December has spread to at least 188 countries and regions. Since March, the police, assisted by soldiers have used to enforce the lockdown regulations. According to the police, 100 000 Zimbabweans had been arrested as of July for breaking the national Covid-19 regulations. CITE investigations revealed that there was in general a difference in the enforcement of the restrictions in the eastern and western suburbs.

People from high density townships were harassed and arrested more than the residents from low density suburbs. This might have been due to that townships are generally perceived as full of mischief-makers and rogue people who were bound to disregard the regulations. People who were arrested for violating Covid-19 regulations told CITE that holding cells at various police stations in the city were filthy and overcrowded, thus exposing them to Covid-19 infections.

Ironically, those arrested were roughed up, bristly handcuffed and sometimes beaten up before being bungled into waiting police trucks, without being sanitised and social distancing was not observed. They were then taken to overcrowded holding cells.

At one time in mid-April a holding cell at Luveve police with a carrying capacity of 10 was overcrowded having more than 23 people. Worsening the situation was that there was no running water for the toilet that is flushed from the outside, there were no masks and there was no social distancing.  Many people brutalised by the police and sustained serious injuries were unable to seek medical help due strained finances.

CITE uncovered that 23-year-old man from Old Magwegwe suffered several lacerations and a sprained ankle after police descended upon him ostensibly for breaking the 6pm curfew.

“I was coming from visiting my sister who stays near Marisha (Magwegwe) when police pounced and beat me up. They said I was not supposed to be outside home at that time,’ said Njabulo Chikumira.

This publication noticed that the harassment by the police intensified mid-July in the run up to the foiled July 31 protests. Many people were assaulted for violating the then 12-hour curfew from 6pm to 6am. In most cases, some people failed to get home on time due to transport challenges as the available Zupco buses were overwhelmed.

On 19 July, in Emakhandeni some people, who had disembarked from a bus around 7:30pm were arrested for violating the curfew and were later made to pay ZWL$200 fines each the following morning. On 23 July around 8pm, in Cowdray Park, people living in the Empompini area were ruthlessly clobbered by uniformed police officers for being outside after 6pm. The police claimed that holding cells at Luveve police station were full so they were administering instant justice. 

The police harassed and bludgeoned people on 31 July who moved in groups, as they were suspected of being demonstrators. CITE observed that all buses and kombis coming from townships and using the main feeder roads, Luveve and Khami roads, were stopped and all passengers had to produce exemption letters. Passengers with no exemption letters were detained for the whole day and released in the evening.

After several reports of people getting detained at roadblocks along Luveve road on August 4, the Cite news crew visited the Noczim roadblock and discovered nauseating treatment of residents. One elderly woman pleaded with no luck with the law enforcers to release her as she wanted to go and purchase her medication.

“I stay in Nkayi, but I come here routinely to collect my medication, but I was subjected to inhuman treatment after I was told that I needed a pass to get into town. We were detained at Noczim for almost the whole day. We were just released without being made to pay a fine,” said the elderly woman who insisted on being identified as MaNkiwane.

Responding to this, Passengers Association of Zimbabwe (PAZ) blasted the police for cruelty and accused law enforcement agents of corruption.  

“There are many private vehicles owners who seek to assist stranded commuters and end up being made to suffer, mostly by malfeasant law officers seeking corrupt gains,” said PAZ.

CITE also uncovered that people suspected of running shebeens in townships were harassed and intimidated, while some were arrested and charged. In townships such as Njube police invaded houses suspected of running illegal shebeens and arrested people found drinking. The tavern owners had to fork out bribes if they did not want to be taken to the police station.

People interviewed by this publication said they paid ZWL$500 fines each for being caught at suspected taverns. Sisters, Nokuthula and Ntombizodwa Mpofu, made headlines on 16 April when they were allegedly handcuffed, assaulted, labelled prostitutes and tribally insulted by police officers based at the Cowdray park police base, after they had gone to the shops to buy some foodstuffs.

According to the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) since the beginning of the national lockdown in March they managed to document at least 1498 violations to the end of August. However, this publication also observed that a month after the lockdown street vendors began to make their way back to the ‘Market’, a down town area which was previously reserved for vegetable trading.

But, city council authorities, taking advantage of the shutdown moved with alacrity to callously destroy informal structures that were set up by the vendors. However, the street traders were not deterred and they began sneaking back to sell vegetables and fruits. Unlucky vendors were arrested and fined $500 fines each.

Michael Ndiweni, director at Bulawayo Vendors and Traders Association (BVTA) said the harassment of vendors is deplorable and called on authorities to recognise informal vendors.

“The harassment of vendors is a violation of their right to work and as an organisation we deplore such behaviour. We strongly condemn such acts and few weeks back there were reports that mounted police harassed and injured one of our member and we strongly condemn that,” said Ndiweni.

“As an organisation we are calling on government to recognise and protect this sector because it is a key contributor in the economy, as you know that 70 % of our GDP comes from the informal economy,” Ndiweni said.

Some residents interviewed said they struggled accessing money sent by relatives living abroad from facilities such as Mukuru and World Remit, as they were arrested and made to pay fines for not having exemption letters. Irked by the sustained human rights abuse in the country, civic groups in Matabeleland were last month forced to appeal to President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the regional bloc, Sadc, African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN).

“We humbly write to you ….to express our grave concern on the deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe, especially with regards to surge in torture and abductions in general…” the CSOs wrote.

“The government is showing little or no interest in the human rights and wellbeing of citizens and in protecting minority rights. We have a government that practices outright and brazen tribalism.”

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) revealed that they are offering legal assistance to some residents who were harassed by the security state agents.

“It is worrying for us as ZLHR that the law enforcement agents who are enforcing the national lockdown have committed several human rights violations. These include assaulting or harassing people,” said ZLHR spokesperson Kumbirai Mafunda adding that the organisation had offered legal assistance to dozens.

“We have seen people arrested for allegedly undermining the authority of the president during this national lockdown. In Bulawayo, residents were arrested for merely standing outside their homes. We are assisting one resident in Bulawayo in suing eleven police officers for assaulting her. This is not in Bulawayo alone but throughout the country. We have also seen people’s informal structures of trading being destroyed and we condemn all this violations,” Mafunda added.

However, Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi, the national police spokesperson, while conceding that policing law during Covid-19 lockdown was a conundrum appeared to defend the police.

“The need to balance the interests of the people, rights of the people and policing in times of Covid-19 makes our job difficult when people have untoward attitudes against measures aimed at stopping the spread of the disease,” said Nyathi.

The police spokesperson warned that the law enforcement agents will continue arresting offenders.

“The issue is very tricky as long as people are committing crimes, the police will have to move in and arrest the offenders. On the other hand, you have other civilians who do not commit crimes and support police efforts,” Nyathi added.

Source: Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE)

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