Brutal repression of WOZA must end

01/02/2012
Urgent Appeal

Paris-Geneva, February 1, 2012. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), is concerned by the increase of acts of repression and criminalisation faced by leaders and members of the organisation Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA).

Over the past months, WOZA members have been repeatedly harassed for their human rights activities.

The last in a series of incidents is the arrest and physical abuse on January 19, 2012 of 17 WOZA members, including 16 women, during their seven hours arrest by police officers in Bulawayo [1]. On that day, plain clothed police officers from Donnington police station arrested without due justification the 17 members at a shopping centre. After a police officer identified as Matshaya beckoned them “WOZA people today I am going to fix you”, they were taken to Donnington police station. The arrested activists were forced to sit still on “air chairs”, i.e. that they had to sit as if they were sitting on a chair but without any chair, a very painful position. Six police officers then forced a plastic bag over the head of Ms. Nicole Lunga, ordering her to kick her foot when ready to “talk”. Meanwhile, one officer knocked a broomstick on the heads of others urging them to admit that they were planning a protest.

The 17 defenders were then transferred to the Law and Order Department of Bulawayo central police station where Officer Georges Levison Ngwenya took up their interrogation. The only WOZA member male was separated from the group and released. At the station, the officer set upon Ms. Patience Mahlangu, beating her until she bled accusing her of being a Satanist. All were then threatened and harassed as their details were being recorded by the police. When the officer threatened the women “we are going to remove your panties and beat your bottoms”, lawyers representing the activists arrived forcing the police to back down. The police insisted on photographing the activists “so that they can be identified in any future demonstration”. The police did not give them any information on the follow-up to the arrest but warned that they may proceed to summon them if they want to.

The Observatory considers that the above-mentioned acts amount to acts prohibited under the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment intimidating human rights defenders for carrying out their legitimate human rights activities.

Such acts cannot be tolerated. They go as far as de-legitimising the crucial role played by law-enforcement bodies in a State that should be governed by rule of law”, says Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President. “The authorities must order an immediate, effective, thorough and impartial investigation into the above-mentioned events. Ensuring that human rights defenders can operate without fear of harassment and attacks and ensuring accountability for any such attack is vital”.

In parallel, two WOZA members, Ms. Jenni Williams, National Coordinator, and Ms. Magodonga Mahlangu, have been subjected to judicial harassment on what appear to be trumped up charges, following a peaceful march held on September 21, 2011 in Bulawayo to commemorate the International Day of Peace. Since December 12, 2011, the two have been facing charges of “theft” and “kidnapping” before Tredgold Regional Court. In the past, WOZA members have been repeatedly arrested and prosecuted in reprisal for the exercise of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly. In 2008, the Supreme Court found that Ms. Williams and Ms. Mahlangu’s right to freedom of protest was obstructed by a 2008 arrest. As this should bar any further assembly-related charges, some police officers threatened to bring new criminal charges under other provisions.

Over the course of the hearings, numerous inconsistencies and contradictions between State witness statements to the court and their previous statements to the police [2] become apparent. Nonetheless, Judge Goodluck Sangweni dismissed the defence motion to discharge the defendants on January 16, 2012. The trial will resume on February 3, 2012, at which time the defence lawyer will announce whether he intends to apply to the High Court for review of the decision for alleged bias or irregularity.

We are very concerned about the apparent political underpinnings in this case. It should be dismissed swiftly in the absence of any compelling evidence of criminal conduct”, says Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General. “The mismatch between police statements on the one hand and information revealed in open court on the other hand requires an investigation into the conduct and motivation of the police investigation”.

The Observatory firmly denounces the continuing harassment of WOZA members and calls upon the Zimbabwean authorities to guarantee that human rights defenders can carry out their activities free of any hindrances and stop any kind of harassment - including at the judicial level - against human rights defenders, in line with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights instruments ratified by Zimbabwe.

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