HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsRestore human rights culture

Restore human rights culture

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“THEY have taken my husband away. They came with guns, violently stormed into my house, woke everyone up in the process, drove off with my husband on allegations of stocktheft, and left us all, especially our two minor children, absolutely terrified. Could you please do something about this as soon as possible? We do not know what they will do to him.”

This was a desperate call in the thick of night, at 02:10 hours, from a client needing legal representation for her husband on Saturday, September 18, 2010 in the aftermath of a raid on her home in Harare by armed police officers.

Her husband, a respectable businessman and honourable citizen, had been accused of stealing livestock for his butchery enterprise. Identities and specific references to the case are best kept unpublished at this stage as the matter is still pending before courts of law, and publication of same might jeopardise the fairness of ongoing proceedings.

The broad description of the situation is however pertinent today, as Zimbabwe joins the rest of the international community in commemorating Human Rights Day.

Human Rights Day is marked now on December 10 every year, in recognition of the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948.

This year’s Human Rights Day brings to mind the case of the brutal arrest in Harare described in the foregoing paragraphs, and a few other cases of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, witnessed by the writer in recent times. The arresting officers in the case under discussion were “kind enough” to identify themselves, and to give to the accused’s wife their mobile phone numbers. They told her they were taking her husband to Rhodesville Police Station (Harare) for the “night”.

The raid on my client’s home had commenced at about 01:00 hours on September 18, 2010.

A drive to Rhodesville Police Station around 02:30 hours of the same morning did not yield any joy as he had been driven further, at that ungodly hour, to Marondera, some 100 kilometres out of Harare, for unexplained reasons, and contrary to the indications that had been made to the detainee’s wife, that her husband would put up at Rhodesville Police Station.

What followed in the next few days amounted to a hellish experience for the hapless businessman. He was detained in police cells at Marondera for two days, then driven to Chivhu police cells where he was detained for another two days.

On the evening of the third day, he was, together with nine other co-accused persons, driven to Kadoma Police Station at the back of an open truck, together with dozens of ox-heads and other items of luggage.

He eventually appeared before a magistrate, more than five days after he had been arrested.

An appearance on Thursday after an arrest in the wee ours of the previous Saturday, amounts to way beyond the 48-hour period within which accused persons should be brought before a magistrate.

Today the situation is worsening, especially with the current talk of Zimbabwean elections in 2011.

This slide in the human rights situation comes after the nation had experienced a welcome respite in the frequency of human rights violations recorded after the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU) in February 2009.

The militant point made by colleagues in recent months, was that Zimbabwe in 2010, still suffered from chronic human rights deficits, and that nothing had changed after the formation of the GNU.

I had proffered a more generous assessment of the nation’s situation, arguing that the GNU had achieved significant strides in eliminating human rights abuses.

I had been of the view that everyone, including those wielding political and other forms of power, had learnt from the historic hardships that Zimbabweans had suffered in the last decade, especially in the years 2007 and 2008.

That lessons had been drawn, from the fact that the barbaric, inhuman and demonic practices of the cutting-off of people’s arms, wanton arrest of journalists and other ordinary citizens, unnecessary incarceration and over-detention of accused persons, and other repugnant forms of human rights violations, were retrogressive and did not have a place in a civilised society.

Indeed, the media profession in Zimbabwe has been under siege lately.

The incidence of arrest and other forms of harassment of journalists and other media workers has steadily risen in recent months. Numerous ordinary citizens have also, of late, been denied their liberty under unjustifiable circumstances.

Yet detention cells at virtually all police stations and prisons fall below acceptable and international conditions, even by our African standards.

Invariably all holding cells at police stations are single rooms, with the uncovered and stinking toilet seats in one corner of the room.

The water flushing unit is located outside the prison cell, to be triggered only from outside the holding cell by a police officer, at his or her designated time, at his/her whim and caprice.

But it is totally unforgivable for the State, through police officers and prosecutors, to have no regard for the fundamental principles of human rights, civilisation and of the rule of law.

Today, on this 10th day of December 2010, it is time to call upon our rulers, politicians and political parties, the State, the police and other armed forces, and all others who wield State-sanctioned authority and power, to return to the culture of respect for human rights.

Chris Mhike is a Harare-based lawyer

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