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‘Tough year ahead for rights defenders’

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BY MOSES MATENGA

HUMAN rights defenders (HRDs) have predicted a tough 2022 and warned of potential violence amid fear that the government will tighten screws on critics ahead of by-elections early next year.

Zimbabwe is expected to hold by-elections in the first quarter of 2022, while political parties are expected to start preparing for national polls to be held in 2023.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa said he would proclaim the date for by-elections in early January.

Southern Defenders, a membership organisation composed of civil society organisations from across southern Africa, expressed fear that the country will take an “authoritarian turn” given the new laws that have been proposed to “silence critics”.

The organisation’s team leader Washington Katema urged human rights defenders “to rise to the occasion and push back on the rising phenomenon of authoritarian consolidation in several southern African countries, including Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Swaziland”.

“In Zimbabwe, our fears are that the government will continue on its ultra-authoritarian turn which started with a military coup in November 2017 and gained momentum after the July 2018 coup proofing “election without choice” — because to all intents and purposes, the election outcome was predetermined,” Katema said.

“In this scenario, the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill and the Patriotic Act will be signed into law. The online and offline civic, democratic and civil society space will continue to shrink. The opposition and human rights activists, including frontline human rights defenders might be forced to go underground, and some driven into exile.”

United Nations special rapporteurs have also expressed grave concern over the PVO Bill, which is designed to control the operations of civic society organisations (CSOs).

Cabinet approved the Bill, which amends several provisions of the PVO Act (Chapter 17:05) that is currently in force. The Amendment Bill was gazetted last month.

The Bill provides for the suspension of a PVOs’ executive committee under certain circumstances, providing wide-ranging powers to national authorities to interfere with the governance of PVOs.

“From our end, we will ensure that HRDs across countries and causes are safe, but not silent. We will be expanding our shield of protection to make sure no one is left behind, with a strategic focus on the traditionally-marginalised groups, especially HRDs in rural and mining communities as well as women rights defenders and public interest journalists,” Katema added.

Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition director Blessing Vava said 2020 would be challenging for CSOs that faced “draconian laws”.

“It’s a challenging year, especially for CSOs as we are faced with draconian pieces of legislation, including the proposed Patriotic Bill, PVO Amendment Bill among others all which are threatening the existence of civil society,” Vava said.

“Worrying trends of violence witnessed during (MDC Alliance president Nelson) Chamisa’s tours point to a gloomy electoral environment and it seems Zanu PF, using State machinery, is determined to thwart any opposing voices. The State must guarantee the safety of citizens and ensure a peaceful electoral environment.”

There is rising concern from critics, human rights groups and the opposition that Mnangagwa’s government is railroading the PVO Bill, Patriotic Act and other laws to muzzle freedoms of expression, assembly and free speech.

The Patriotic Bill has vague sections which allow the National Prosecuting Authority to institute criminal prosecution against anyone who, in its discretion, is undermining the country or using false statements to paint a bad picture of Zimbabwe to foreign governments.

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