BY FARAI MATIASHE
WHEN a suspected thief, on a bad day, is caught by ordinary citizens, it is common that the person will be beaten and sometimes left-for-dead.
The public reaction speaks to lack of knowledge that a suspect also has rights and deserves humane treatment.
Constitutionally, police officers play the role of rescuing both the suspect — who can fall victim to mob justice due to public anger — and those whose belongings would have been stolen.
The police then hand over the culprits to the justice delivery system and the courts take over to assess whether or not the suspect is guilty, including meting out the statutory punishment where necessary.
But for many years now, there have been claims that the police often torture, harass and beat up suspects in cells.
Last month, a 30-year-old man from Kambuzuma allegedly stole an edging tape at his workplace in the Graniteside industrial site in Harare so he could sell it and augment his salary, whose value had significantly eroded following the re-introduction of the Zimdollar.
Following his arrest, the man was taken to Braeside Police Station, where a docket was opened. He was locked up in a police cell overnight.
In an interview with NewsDay Weekender, the man recalled: “I was handcuffed. They were interrogating me. Five of them took turns to beat me under my feet, neck and back. Some used open fists and baton sticks, while others used a hosepipe to torture me.”
He said during midnight, the baton stick got broken and he thought they would leave him alone, but they looked for another and continued assaulting him until morning.
He was later released after his employer withdrew the case and sacked him.
“I am left with nothing. I do not even know how I am going to get money for rentals and to buy food for my family,” he said.
His wife did not think he would make it and often cried as she nursed his wounds, sustained from police torture.
This is just one of the many cases of police brutality, with Braeside and Southerton Police stations said to be the worst hellholes.
Another victim, speaking on condition of anonymity, recalled his horror experience at Southerton Police Station.
“They (the police) do not play games … I was beaten to the extent that I could not walk. That is how they treat suspects. They force you to talk,” he said.
“They will beat and torture you, even for a minor crime. I was once arrested and taken there.”
According to the Constitution of Zimbabwe, section 70(1)(a) provides that any person accused of an offence has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Section 50(1)(c) provides that any person who is arrested must be treated humanely and with respect for their inherent dignity.
Section 53 guarantees citizens’ freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
These rights and freedoms are also enshrined in international charters and conventions.
According to the United Nations Convention against Torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (UNCAT), torture refers to inflicting severe physical or mental pain or suffering deliberately to obtain information or a confession from the person being tortured.
Torture is also done to punish a person for something they have done or suspected to have done.
Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights provides for freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Police brutality, which had become the hallmark of former President Robert Mugabe’s rule, has remained entrenched even in the “Second Republic”.
Often when suspects are brought to court, their legal representatives raise complaints of torture against the police — and the court can give an order to have those investigated and corrective measures taken.
Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) chairperson Elasto Mugwadi, however, said incidences of torture were minimal in police cells, although there was need to address the few cases of torture by security personnel.
“In order to curb the incidences of torture for suspects of criminal offenses, the ZHRC recommends mainstreaming human rights tenets into the training curriculum of police officers, and the security services at large, refresher workshops on human rights for security personnel, especially the police,” he said.
In a recent statement released at the UN International Day in support of victims of torture, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said the government should make torture a criminal offence and take adequate measures to combat it.
“We call upon government to criminalise torture, prosecute all cases of torture, ensure full accountability of all perpetrators and guarantee redress and rehabilitation to victims, including taking adequate measures to prevent all forms of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment,” ZLHR said.
ZLHR said the government must investigate and prosecute those responsible for torture, including the ill-treatment of suspects and ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law, and that government must accept the outstanding request for a fact-finding country visit by the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, In-human or degrading treatment.
The lawyers said torture has, for long, been a problem in Zimbabwe and their organisation had documented numerous cases in which State security agents had been involved.
Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi, however, denied that suspects were being tortured while in police custody.
“We do not have such cases. Actually, you are the first person telling me about such an issue. If there are any people who have such concerns with police officers, they must come and make formal reports and we will investigate so that justice can prevail,” he said.
Human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama, who has represented many political activists in court, confirmed that torture of suspects in police custody was common practice.
“They do it frequently and not only to punish people, but also to extract information. Yet such information, which would have been obtained unlawfully, cannot be used in a court of law. The Constitution is very clear; people should not be treated inhumanely,” he said.