By Vongai Chikwanda
ON May 13, 2020, Cecilia Chimbiri, legislator Joanah Mamombe and Netsai Marova, three Zimbabwean activists, were allegedly sexually abused and tortured for demonstrating against failure by government to provide personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two years since their initial arrest, there seems to be no investigation into their shocking mistreatment by the State.
Due to years of economic mismanagement and subsequent financial collapse, many ordinary Zimbabweans have endured unbearable hardships in recent years.
When they were told to stay at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, this meant that some people were going to die of hunger.
Chimbiri, Mamombe and Marova refused to turn a blind eye to this injustice, and took to the streets.
Together with other young people, they went to Warren Park, a densely populated suburb southwest of Harare, to protest against government’s failure to provide social relief, including food, to the vulnerable.
Chimbiri, Mamombe and Marova were arrested at a roadblock and taken to Harare Central Police Station, where they were reportedly detained.
Somehow, they were then handed over to State security agents, who reportedly subjected them to horrific days and nights of torture and unspeakable sexual abuse.
They were found two days later in the early hours of May 15, over 87km north of Harare.
They were visibly shaken and disoriented, their clothes torn to pieces.
Upon their return, they spoke of the cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that continues to haunt them physically, emotionally and mentally.
Following their arrest and subsequent abduction, they have suffered harassment and intimidation at the hands of the police and State security agents.
They have been dragged from hospital beds and forced into detention, including a stay of 60 days at Chikurubi Female Prison, a maximum security facility.
To make matters worse, they are still facing prosecution, having been accused of lying about their abductions.
Between January and May 2022, they were taken to court 61 times.
The Zimbabwean government has a long record of stifling dissent by targeting activists with unlawful arrests, abductions, and torture — and unleashing sexual violence against both male and female protesters to discourage them from voicing their grievances.
In January 2019, media reports detailed how government soldiers allegedly inflicted sexual violence against demonstrators who had protested against fuel price increases.
The authorities’ vicious actions send a chilling message to protestors across the nation.
In the case of Mamombe, Chimbiri and Marova, the authorities resorted to acts of intimidation to silence them and send a warning to other women activists who might be inspired to criticise government.
Instead of ordering an investigation into their abduction, the authorities charged the women with “faking their abduction”, denied them bail and accused them of seeking Western sympathy.
In the two years since their alleged abduction, there has been no investigation into their abduction despite United Nations experts calling for the “perpetrators of this outrageous crime” to face justice.
Instead, the authorities have launched an offensive against them, using State institutions to tarnish their names and distract the world’s attention from the abuse they have suffered.
In May 2020, Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said the women “made up the story to divert attention from the fact that they broke lockdown rules by attending a protest.”
Days later, prosecutors levelled a new charge against them of “publishing or communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the State”, which is better known as tarnishing the country’s image.
In their desperation to discredit these women, the authorities have fabricated video evidence against them.
They have also attempted to further control the narrative by imposing stringent bail requirements that prohibit them from speaking out about their ordeal.
Meanwhile, the sham trial has dragged on as witnesses identified by State prosecutors have repeatedly failed to show up in court. The victims stand accused while the perpetrators walk scot-free.
Government must immediately drop all charges against these three Zimbabwean women them and end their horrendous ordeal. They deserve justice.
The Zimbabwean authorities must undertake a thorough, independent, impartial, effective, and transparent investigation into these allegations and bring to justice in fair trials before an ordinary civilian court anyone suspected of criminal responsibility in the torture, enforced disappearance and sexual and gender-based violence against Mamombe, Chimbiri and Marova.
If the Zimbabwean authorities fail to investigate these allegations, they will remain in breach of the country’s international human rights obligations to respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights, and to ensure access to justice and effective remedies in cases of violations of human rights.
Authorities must end the impunity of perpetrators and address the hostile environment that inflicts such appalling pain on the nation’s women activists.