BY MOSES MATENGA/BRENNA MATENDERE
THE United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) has reacted angrily to increasing cases of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe under the cover of the COVID-19 lockdown.
In a statement yesterday, UNHCR spokesperson Liz Throssell said citizens should not be persecuted for protesting peacefully.
This came as several international media and human rights groups came together on Thursday and jointly petitioned South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene and rein in his counterpart President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Global rights defenders and UN agencies have in the past few weeks raised concern over government’s abuse of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions to shrink democratic space and crackdown on dissenting voices.
This has seen the arrest of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, Transform Zimbabwe leader Jacob Ngarivhume and dozens of opposition activists on allegations of inciting public violence, protesting and breaching the lockdown regulations.
“We are concerned at allegations in Zimbabwe, which suggest that the authorities may be using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association,” Throssell said.
“Merely calling for a peaceful protest or participating in a peaceful protest are an exercise of recognised human rights.”
The commission also condemned the use of force by police to disperse and arrest nurses and health workers for picketing at government hospitals demanding better salaries and conditions of work.
Also condemned were the arrests, physical and sexual assault of MDC Alliance activists Joanah Mamombe (Harare West MP), Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova in May.
“It is clear that COVID-19 has added greatly to the challenges Zimbabwe faces amid a deteriorating economy and placed a further burden on an already struggling health sector.”
On Thursday, various global media and human rights groups petitioned Ramaphosa as current African Union chair to urgently intervene in the Zimbabwean crisis.
“We, the undersigned Press freedom and human rights organisations, call on you as chair of the African Union, and as the President of the Republic of South Africa to use all available mechanisms to help secure the immediate release of jailed Zimbabwean investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, and to ensure that journalists across the continent are respected as essential workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and are not jailed for their work,” the petition read.
“It would appear, however, that Mr Chin’ono was arrested for his reporting on corruption and wrongdoing. Such appalling behaviour by the Zimbabwean authorities cannot be countenanced. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the importance of media being allowed to do their jobs cannot be underestimated.”
The Media Monitoring Africa, Committee to Protect Journalists, South African National Editors Forum, Freedom of Expression Institute, Southern African Editors Forum, SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, Civicus, Institute for the Advancement of Journalism and Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University are some of the organisations that signed the petition.
Mnangagwa on Tuesday announced a raft of new safety measures he said were meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.
These include a dusk to dawn curfew, but observers have dismissed some of the measures as meant to curtail citizens’ rights, especially in light of protests set to be held on July 31.
Added UNHCR: “While recognising the government’s efforts to contain the pandemic, it is important to remind the authorities that any lockdown measures and restrictions should be necessary, proportionate and time-limited, and enforced humanely without resorting to unnecessary or excessive force.
“We encourage the government to engage with civil society and other stakeholders to find sustainable solutions to grievances while ensuring that people’s rights and freedoms are protected in accordance with Zimbabwe’s human rights obligations. These include the responsibility of the State to guarantee economic, social and cultural rights.”
Government and the ruling Zanu PF party have threatened to crush the planned protests, describing them as meant to effect regime change, but the organisers insist the march is meant to red flag endemic corruption and the depreciating economic situation in the country.
Speaking to NewsDay Weekender yesterday, Zanu PF acting youth leader Tendai Chirau labelled the protest organisers as “terrorists”.
“As Zanu PF youth league, we believe that one life lost (due to COVID-19) is one too many. A life lost can never be resurrected. We also consider any manipulation of the COVID-19 situation for personal, sectarian, and political gain at the expense of national safety as a cold-blooded, immoral and heartless act of aggression,” he said.
“In essence, any unscrupulous gain during this period is a blood gain. True heroes are those who put the health of the nation first in times like these. It cannot be over emphasised in this regard that the COVID-19 regulations are a safety measure for all of us and that those who disregard these regulations in pursuit of political gain are terrorists.”
Meanwhile, police and the army yesterday intensified the lockdown in major cities, including blocking thousands of commuters from entering the city centre.
In Harare, several people were turned back home despite producing documents to prove they were essential service providers and going to work.
In Gweru, some retail shops were ordered to close and their employees made to pay $500 admission of fines for entering the city centre.
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary-general Japhet Moyo said government should have consulted widely before enforcing the curfew.
“They need to sit down and discover how and why the numbers of transmissions are increasing, instead of enforcing curfews as if the virus moves in the evening.”
— Additional reporting by Kenneth Nyangani/Precious Chida
BY MOSES MATENGA/BRENNA MATENDERE