Many will remember a ghastly story that shook the media a year ago when a Bulawayo woman, Sanele Hlongwane, was heavily assaulted by police officers until she defecated while in custody. The woman, a girlfriend of a deceased robber, recounted during an inquest at the Bulawayo Magistrates’ Court how four police officers severely battered her until she soiled her clothes, as they pressed her for information.
She also gave a heart-wrenching account of how one officer (name supplied) broke a chair to pieces as he used it to assault the now-deceased armed robber. The case ran concurrently with another case, still in Bulawayo, where two Sauerstown Police Station officers were facing murder charges after they tortured a 20-year-old suspect to death in a malicious damage to property case. A witness gave a chilling account of how he was tortured together with five other suspects.
The main suspect was the 20-year-old, who died a few days after release from custody.
These cases are not isolated, as there seems to be a trend that has endured, wherein police officers take it upon themselves to punish offenders and adduce evidence through coercion despite clear constitutional provision that such information obtained through coercion is not admissible. The Constitution outlaws torture and forced confessions.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) once filed a lawsuit against Police Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri and the then Home Affairs minister Kembo Mohadi after two police officers attacked security guards and forced them to roll on the tarmac. On Saturday, an anti-riot police team violently broke and beat up Valentine’s Day protestors during an “I Love You Zimbabwe” march. ZLHR has consistently voiced its concern over what it calls “police brutality against defenceless citizens”. These well-pronounced arguments come against a backcloth of legal think tank Veritas propping and urging the citizenry to take up interest in the matter, where Rashid Mahiya, a citizen, has challenged government to set up mechanisms to receive complaints from the public on the conduct of police officers and other members of the security sector.
This development is spot-on and very much in line with the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Veritas ought to be commended and deserves maximum support for its initiative. Section 210 stipulates that “an Act of Parliament must provide an effective and independent mechanism for receiving and investigating complaints from members of the public about misconduct on the part of members of the security services, and for remedying any harm caused by such misconduct”. Indeed this is a crucial constitutional provision, which should have been implemented as a matter of urgency in the fight for civil liberties. Recently, we saw the clampdown on the public demonstration by teachers and operators of commuter omnibuses. The police have been heavy-handed in crushing demonstrations, most of which would have been sanctioned.
It is imperative that this provision (Section 210) is brought alive and the independent and effective mechanism set up. While the courts, as a general thing, have unreservedly condemned inhuman treatment of suspects, it is vital that section 210 of the Constitution is carried out in reality. The police must abide by the law. High Court judge Justice Nicholas Ndou, sometime in 2012 berated law enforcers, who tortured and seriously injured two Homelink employees facing theft charges: “What you are doing is unlawful. You should not torture suspects and deny them legal representation.”
The police had allegedly set dogs on the accused. It is necessary that law enforcers are well-versed with the provisions of the new Constitution, especially section 50, which underlines the rights of arrested and detained persons. It continues to boggle the mind why law enforcers think forced confessions are admissible evidence in the courts of law. In the case of the woman who was beaten up in Bulawayo, she also told the magistrate how the officers had forced her into signing a statement they wrote linking her to a robbery committed by her deceased boyfriend. It implies outright ignorance on the part of law enforcement.
It is high time such practices are done away with; apart from distorting evidence, they are violently against the Constitution. It is not enough to condemn the acts in words, but in practice. At a pass-out parade Mohadi added his voice when he emphasised the need for police officers to acquaint themselves with the law, but the time is now that a real independent mechanism is set towards curbing the menace arising from police brutality as espoused in the Constitution.
It is in this light that Veritas must be applauded for its effort in initiating the case, which benefits the greater good of the citizens. The government has a constitutional obligation to set up the complaints body, otherwise as a purported democracy, the country cannot continue to fold hands in light of these violations of constitutional rights.
l Learnmore Zuze is a legal researcher, author, and media analyst. He writes here in his own capacity. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org