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The rule of law and COVID-19

Opinion & Analysis
Rule of law: In Zimbabwe just we have witnessed the deployment of State security agents into the streets, a trend that has left civilians hugely vulnerable.

IN Zimbabwe just, like in other African countries, we have witnessed the deployment of State security agents into the streets, a trend that has left civilians hugely vulnerable.

By Rumbidzai Francisca Zengwa

The current COVID-19 crisis, where governments have had to use the police and the army to deal with lockdowns, has exposed the brutality of African governments in enforcing the law.

State security agents have continually failed on their mandate to observe the rule of law in enforcing law and order, and have, instead, acted like they are above the law.

In Zimbabwe, the history of human rights abuses perpetrated by State security forces has been recorded and documented since the 1980s.

We have witnessed the Gukurahundi atrocities of the 1980s in Matabeleland and Midlands prov- inces, and this remains one of the worst forms of State-organised violence in the history of post-independent Zimbabwe.

In 1998, the State unleashed the riot police and the army on food rioters, which resulted in mass beatings, torture, and police brutality on unarmed civilians.

During Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, ActionAid International reported 27% of their documented reports being assaults in police custody, 43% of their reports being deaths or injuries resulting from police actions.

Just over a year ago, the nation witnessed another orgy of gross human rights abuses and total disregard of human life, when soldiers deployed onto the streets of Harare to disperse unarmed protesters opened fire, killing six and injuring dozens others.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, civil society organisations and other stakeholders, who carry on their shoulders a noble pursuit of the protection and promotion of human rights, have recorded several hundreds of cases of human rights abuses perpetrated by the army, police and the State intelligence agents.

While the government continues to discourage citizens from violating the national lockdown rules and regulations, the conduct by the security forces is intolerable and unacceptable.

There has been mass incarceration of citizens, arbitrary arrests of citizens, discriminatory beatings of civilians, looting of tuck shops and, in some cases, deaths due to assaults.

The total disregard of the rule of law by the State security agents while performing their duties is worrisome and is a cause for concern.

COVID-19 has been just another excuse for human rights violations, and once again, the State has been found at the forefront of human rights abuses.

Insensitive to the struggles being faced by informal traders and vendors, the police have raided markets and burnt fresh farm produce brought by farmers.

In some instances, police officers unleashed their dogs on civilians found in breach of the national lockdown.

The Supreme Court in the case of Jestina Mukoko v The Attorney- General judgment No SC 11/12 emphasised that: “No exceptional circumstances such as the seriousness of the crime the person is suspected of having committed, or the danger he or she is believed to pose to national security can justify infliction of torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment.”

The law under Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020 is clear regarding the penalty that can be levelled against any members of the public who are found in violation of the national lockdown. Section 11 provides for the following: Regardless of the several calls on the security forces to exercise due care and compassion on citizens when enforcing the national lockdown, security forces have neglected and perpetuated other forms of punishment such as assaults.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights has since taken the police to court demanding that they follow the rule of law. 

The High Court on April 14, 2020 ordered the police and army to follow the rule of law, to refrain from assaulting civilians.

It is utterly absurd that they require such a reminder. 

The fight against COVID-19 has equally been a fight for human rights.

The rule of law must be religiously observed.

A fight for human rights is a fight that has been ongoing, the fight against the deadly COVID-19 virus must not cause the State to regress from respecting human rights and freedoms.

Rumbidzai Francisca Zengwa ZimRights justice programmes