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Mugabe Turns Screw on Rights Activists and Lawyers

New wave of repression as Mugabe prepares for second round of leadership contest.
By Jabu Shoko
President Robert Mugabe is heaping pressure on the country’s civil society organisations and the human rights lawyers who represent them ahead of the presidential run-off later this month.

On June 5, Zimbabwe’s public service minister Nicholas Goche ordered all non-government organisations, NGOs, to stop their work, saying they had violated certain conditions.

At the same time, IWPR has been inundated with reports that since the beginning of June, NGOs, have come under siege from marauding state security agents, with more than a dozen raided in the past week and scores of officials arrested.

On June 6, armed state security agents stormed the head offices of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, CZC, claiming the umbrella body of hundreds of civil society organisations was running an illegal broadcasting operation – charges that CZC officials vehemently deny.

Three days later, heavily armed riot police, national intelligence officers and military forces raided the offices of the Ecumenical Centre. This religious complex houses the offices of the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe, Ecumenical Support Services, the Christian Alliance, the Zimbabwe National Pastors' Conference and the Padare Men’s Forum on Gender.

According to officials from the respective organisations, the state security agents carted away documents, computers, laptops and hard drives before arresting some 15 people, including interns and newspaper columnist Pius Wakatama.

“I am shocked they are doing this to Christian organisations,” said Useni Sibanda, the coordinator of Christian Alliance.

“It is a deliberate crackdown on civil society organisations. This election is going to be far from free and fair with this violence.”

A day earlier, in the remote town of Binga in Matabeleland North, an undisputed rural stronghold of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, state security agents arrested 14 members of groups organised by the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, MMPZ.

Meanwhile, two prominent human rights lawyers have fled to South Africa after receiving threats to their lives, according to Irene Petras, director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, ZLHR.

Another human rights lawyer was living in fear for representing MDC officials and other clients perceived to be allies of the opposition.

On May 30, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and its network partners advised ZLHR that it had received Andrew Makoni in its offices in Johannesburg.

Makoni had acted for a wide range of human rights defenders, with leaders and members of the MDC forming the foundation of his legal practice.

He had fled the country after receiving credible information that he was on a list of human rights lawyers targeted for imminent assassination for representing MDC members.

This information has allegedly been independently verified from two separate sources who spoke two other lawyers, and has also been publicised by the African Bar Association.

He and other human rights lawyers were reportedly to be “made an example of” to dissuade anyone else from taking up the defence of targeted human rights defenders in the run-up to the presidential election run-off, and in the face of escalating human rights violations in several provinces, according to information obtained from ZLHR.

Harrison Nkomo, a human rights lawyer with ZLHR who has represented media practitioners, and members of the MDC, has also fled the country after receiving the same information, and believing his life to be under threat.

On June 9, ZLHR was advised that various individuals had gathered around the vehicle of lawyer Alec Muchadehama, outside his legal practice in Harare and were waiting for him to emerge from his office.

Vehicles were parked at the exits of the building, as well as outside his home. Realising that these were not ordinary police officers sent to arrest him, the lawyer immediately fled and is now in hiding.

He, too, has represented a significant number of human rights defenders, including MDC leaders and members, and a number of NGOs, such as the National Constitutional Assembly, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and the Christian Alliance.

“These are the most recent examples of a deeply disturbing clampdown on the legal profession, but are not the only cases to have been reported recently to ZLHR,” said Petras.

“Lawyers [are] reported to have alleged that ‘mass arrests’ are being planned in the final weeks before the election run-off, and that human rights lawyers are considered a barrier to ensuring that targeted individuals remain in custody while the election is ongoing.”

Petras said ZLHR wished to warn of the dire consequences ahead for human rights defenders, civic organisations and political party leaders and members as a result of the official clampdown.

“Such targeting of lawyers – even the mere allegation that there exists a list of lawyers for elimination – has a chilling effect on all members of the legal profession and, by implication, on the affected individuals whose rights they seek to protect,” she said.

Petras urged human rights lawyers to exercise caution in relation to their security, and to immediately report all threats and attacks to the responsible authorities, to the Law Society of Zimbabwe and to ZLHR, as well as to Southern African Development Community, SADC, diplomatic representatives and regional observers in Zimbabwe.

The crackdown on lawyers and Christian organisations comes hard on the heels of a government directive banning humanitarian organisations from distributing food in the country.

Nicholas Goche, the minister of public service, labour and social welfare, claimed the decision to bar the relief agencies from distributing food was arrived at after ZANU-PF discovered that the “food was being used to campaign for the MDC”.

Meanwhile, the MDC continues to be subjected to government pressure.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai claimed at a media briefing on June 10 that at least 66 of his party’s supporters have been killed. The MDC leader has been picked up several times since his return to Zimbabwe, and the party’s secretary-general Tendai Biti was arrested minutes after he set foot on the tarmac at Harare Airport on June 12.

Eric Matinenga, a newly elected MDC legislator for Buhera West, was this week arrested for the second time in as many days. The authorities have ignored a high court order obtained by his lawyers ordering his release.

Minister of justice, legal and parliamentary affairs Patrick Chinamasa said on June 10 that he was easing pressure on jails ahead of the June 27 presidential run-off by releasing petty criminals to create room for people arrested for politically motivated crimes.

There is a fear some civil society representatives will be locked up on trumped-up charges.

MDC insiders claim Tsvangirai, who beat Mugabe but failed to secure an absolute majority in the disputed March 29 election, is under pressure to forge a government of national unity with the incumbent, in a bid to stem the rising violence.

Jabu Shoko is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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