SEVENTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Jacob Matanda says he will never forget October 4 2012, the day when his son Blessing (26) was found lying prostrate in a Munyati police holding cell with a bullet wound on his chest and a Brno pistol next to him.
“My son died in the hands of the police and they still insist that he killed himself. He had no reason to shoot himself especially given that he was being accused of having broken into a shop while he was asleep at home,” said Matanda.
Constable Philip Chikomichi, who arrested Blessing alleges that the young man, who left behind a daughter and wife, committed suicide. But the Matanda family is adamant that he was slain in the hands of the police officers.
Matanda argues that police searched his son before detaining him in the cell and therefore he could not have sneaked into the holding cells with the pistol.
Initially the family refused to bury their loved one demanding that the police accept responsibility and apologise to the family.
The abyss between the family and the police resulted in a two-week-long standoff and eventually an inquest into the death. The Matandas eventually buried their son.
To this day the Matanda family is still awaiting the findings of the inquest conducted last year by provincial magistrate Letwin Rwodzi.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) say Matanda’s case is not isolated as many accused persons have died while in police custody, a place that should ordinarily be safe and secure.
Tawanda Zhuwarara of ZLHR who was representing the Matanda family said police cells were fast becoming unsafe for suspects, some of whom have suffered mysterious deaths in cells.
“This case is the eighth active case I have dealt with this year (2012) alone. The purpose of a person being put in police custody is to ensure that you attend court, but these days it’s not a given that you will attend court — you might just die in the cell,” he said.
The Kwekwe Magistrates’ Court last month opened another inquest into allegations that members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) shot dead a defenceless Hillary Tawengwa (19) who was at a mine compound at the centre of a raid.
Father of the deceased Claytos Tavengwa says he has lost all respect for the police and does not believe they are capable of carrying out their constitutional mandate.
“There is a police service which is responsible for: (1. c) Protecting and securing the lives and property of the people; (d) maintaining law and order; and (e) upholding this Constitution and enforcing the law without fear or favour,” reads Chapter 11 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution.
Former Deputy Minister of Justice and lawyer Obert Gutu says the police force has failed to instil constitutionalism among its ranks and is currently violating fundamental sections of the Constitution especially the Bill of Rights.
“Chapter 4 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe aptly captures the Bill of Rights. Section 50 of the Constitution sets out, in detail the rights of arrested and detained persons. Needless to emphasise, it is a serious abrogation of the constitutional rights of a detained person if they are held in detention for a period in excess of 48 hours after their arrest before they are brought to a court of law,” Gutu said.
“It is a travesty of human dignity for police to deliberately allow the situation whereby detained persons die in custody. Fundamentally, the police should understand that an accused person is presumed innocent until he/she is convicted by a competent court of law.”
He said police needed training and better salaries so that cases of alleged brutality are curtailed.
“As presently constituted, the police force is in urgent need of both human resource training and capacitation in terms of their tools of trade. A hungry police officer is invariably an angry and corrupt police officer,” said Gutu.
Officer commanding Kwekwe district Chief Superintendent Fiona Thlomani recently admitted that officers needed training after she came under fire from motorists who challenged the manner in which her charges were effecting the law.
“With reference to your undated letter of complaint, we carried out investigations and we acknowledge the genuine errors by our traffic officers. We would like to inform you that we have identified a training need for our traffic officers in your letter of complaint,” wrote Thlomani on August 15.
Despite noting these “genuine errors,” roadblocks remain a nightmare for any motorist with police officers using sometimes unorthodox means to extract fines.
‘Police violating human rights’
Police officers are often accused of violating human rights and use of excessive force on civil society, suspects, journalists and motorists.
Commuter omnibus operators in Harare know the police as “baton-wielding and windscreen-smashing enthusiasts whose knack for destruction is only matched by termites”.
“You can never trust the police especially one who is wielding a baton stick — imagine the expense we have to go through replacing windscreens smashed in by a team of people who are supposed to uphold the law and defend property rights,” said James Matambo, a kombi driver in Harare.
Opposition parties, notably MDC-T, look at the police as brutal and laced by partisan interests as many of their officials and supporters have been harshly treated in the hands of the ZRP.
Former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was once at the receiving end of such brutality by the police while attending a peaceful prayer meeting in Highfield.
On July 10, this year Learnfirst Tarusenga (33) was allegedly shot at point-blank range on his private parts by police officers who according to court papers accused him of attempting to flee.
Tarusenga faces armed robbery charges with the State accusing him of stealing cellphones, DVD players, car batteries and a speaker. He now passes urine using the aid of an artificially inseminated tube.
Mutatu and partners have now taken the case of Tarusenga and are representing him for free saying the man fished out of the communal lands and of no means is suffering without any medical attention in remand prison in a case where there is little or no evidence.
Human rights lawyer Valentine Mutatu said the police were violating the Constitution and giving themselves powers which are not supported by any law.
“The police are acting outside the provisions of the law, there is no legal provision in our statutes which allows the police to use force or to assault suspects during investigations. In terms of our Constitution, there is a presumption of innocence until someone is proven guilty,” said Mutatu.
Spot fines fuelling corruption
Although the Road Traffic Act provides that a driver who does not have a licence on his person should be given seven days to produce it at the nearest police station failure of which he or she should pay a fine, police impound vehicles at roadblocks if one for whatever reason fails to produce at the roadblock.
This spot fine trend and harassing motorists in an attempt to get fines has been largely blamed by parliamentarians as the reason behind the increase of corruption in the force.
Making recommendations in Parliament, Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Transport and Infrastructural Development chairman Amos Midzi said spot fines should be banned.
“Spot fines and the alleged targets by the ZRP should be abolished and offenders must be given seven days to pay the fines,” said Midzi.
In 2012 Superintendent Moreblessing Gandiyaru while admitting that there was no law that made spot fines mandatory, said those who failed to pay would be arrested.