Political violence in Zimbabwe ahead of referendum tomorrow

By Adi Drori-Avraham
A COPAC (Constitution Select Committee) rally at Africa Unity square in Harare, 15 March 2013. The rally was peaceful, unlike other events in the country. © Amnesty International

A COPAC (Constitution Select Committee) rally at Africa Unity square in Harare, 15 March 2013. The rally was peaceful, unlike other events in the country. © Amnesty International

It is a day before Zimbabwe votes on a referendum on the new constitution and the ugly sight of political violence is back on the streets of Harare and Bulawayo.

At 11 o’clock this morning, nine activists from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T party in Mbare suburb were attacked by President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF party supporters as they were putting up posters calling for a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum tomorrow.

A large group of people, some wearing ZANU-PF T-shirts, surrounded the activists and beat them with booted feet and fists. Seven activists needed medical attention after the attack.

As far we know, the activists were too scared to report the attack, because they feared the police would arrest them. Victims who report political violence from ZANU-PF supporters in Mbare have been arrested before after making police reports.

Two BBC journalists who were there were also attacked and their equipment was broken. An eye-witness told us that one of the journalists was bleeding.

‘The constitution is important for me and my children,” One of the victims told us. “The current constitution allows repressive laws. By taking part in this constitution making process we can change this.”

In central Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, at around 3pm, police violently broke up peaceful marches by activists from Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). More than 1,000 people were there to launch WOZA’s ‘Vote Yes’ in the referendum campaign. We have no information so far on injuries or arrests. A day earlier, WOZA activists in Harare had staged a successful peaceful protest without being stopped.

With the referendum vote tomorrow and elections due later this year, this a crucial time for human rights in Zimbabwe.

We are keeping our ears very close to the ground in Zimbabwe at the moment and keeping in regular touch with human rights defenders there.
In recent months, the government has gone into an overdrive of intimidation and harassment of civil society organizations. It’s been raiding offices, arresting human rights defenders and attempting to ban radio. Some of the organizations have been involved in voter education, observing elections and other polls-related activities.

The arrests are particularly disturbing because the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said last week that organisations facing police investigations would be prevented from monitoring the referendum.

Today the High Court in Harare ordered the ZEC to reconsider the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association’s (ZimRights) accreditation. ZimRights had approached the court after ZEC had barred the organization from observing the referendum because it was facing police investigations.

“It’s obvious that the system is trying to silence us”, a human rights defender inHarare told us.

The worst case scenario is a repeat of what happened during the elections in 2008. After the first round of voting ended inconclusively, a wave of political violence swept Zimbabwe.

More than 200 people died, over 10,000 were injured and over 28,000 were internally displaced. Many people had to flee Zimbabwe.

The government at the time arrested, detained and tortured human rights defenders and raided their offices. The scale of violence and human rights violations was so extreme that that one week before the second round of elections, Morgan Tsvanigrai – the MDC-T’s presidential candidate – pulled out.

This is a time for the global human rights movement to follow events in Zimbabwe. We will be in constant touch with people on the ground, who are at the moment at real risk of abuse and harassment. We will be recording their voices so you can know what is happening and act in solidarity with them and call for respect for human rights at this critical time in Zimbabwe as the people participate in creating a new constitutional order. So stay tuned.

Right now, we need to call on SADC to use its influence to protect freedom of expression in Zimbabwe and take steps to prevent political violence in the lead up to the elections.