Zimbabwean Activists Tell of Rights Abuses
Lawyers, Victims Seek Support of U.S.
Dozens of women arrested at a protest in Zimbabwe were stripped and otherwise brutalized in an ongoing government crackdown on activists, according to Zimbabwean human rights lawyers and torture victims who arrived in Washington last week for meetings with officials.
Otto Saki, acting director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said 61 women protesting exorbitant electricity bills and spotty service were detained Wednesday and confined to one room at a police station in Harare, the capital.
“They were stripped naked by male policemen and tortured. Forty-one of them are still in custody and have to appear in court, while 20 were able to get out on bail,” he said.
The women were arrested for what authorities described as an “unlawful gathering conducive to rioting and public disorder,” he said, and lawyers were denied access to them Thursday and Friday.
Grace Kwinjeh, a leading activist with the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, called the women “courageous.”
“It is a tragedy and really sad the way they are using women’s sexuality as a tool of repression and torture. If the government is not stopped, Zimbabwe is slowly slipping into the dark period of rapes and violence which gripped it in 2000,” she said. The women “go for days without electricity. . . . In the high-density suburbs, mothers have not been able to cook for their children, so they gathered in front of the power station to protest.”
Kwinjeh was one of dozens of opposition members, including the party leader, Morgan Tsvangi- rai, arrested March 11 and badly beaten by police.
The delegation to Washington also included Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of Zimbabwe’s National Constitutional Assembly; Jacob Mafume, coordinator of a coalition of civil society groups; and Tawanda Mutasah, executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, a private foundation. They said Thursday that they learned about the arrests after arriving in Washington.
At least 224 Zimbabweans have been detained, kidnapped or arrested since March 11. Before Wednesday’s arrests, thirty had been denied bail and remained in custody for alleged “banditry, terrorism and sabotage,” Saki said.
Five of those 30 are critically ill because of abusive interrogation techniques, he said. One of the detainees, Paul Madzore, a member of parliament, has told visitors that he has passed out repeatedly and was suffering from severe headaches.
The four other critically ill detainees are being held in a prison hospital, and family members attempting to visit them are harassed by intelligence officers, Saki added.
“Their lawyers have been able to check in with them, but now relatives are afraid of these members of the intelligence unit in the law and order section of the police,” he said.
Kwinjeh said the delegation planned to meet with State Department officials and Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) or their staffs.
“Fear is not a factor,” Kwinjeh said about plans to return home this weekend. “We have to stand for freedom. What we only hope is that the international community will hear our cries and do something about it.”