Women activists arrested in Zimbabwe

A group of Zimbabwean women activists are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment following their arrest at a peaceful demonstration in Harare.

Fourteen activists from the organisation Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), including WOZA leaders Jenni Williams and Magadonga Mahlangu, were arrested on 28 May and are being held under harsh prison conditions.

Jenni Williams, national coordinator of WOZA, fellow WOZA leader Magadonga Mahlangu, and 12 other activists, including one man, were captured as they marched to the Zambian Embassy. They were calling on the Chair of the Southern African Development Community to help bring an end to the violence that has been taking place in Zimbabwe since elections were held on 29 March 2008.

It is reported that some of the WOZA members were beaten by police as they were arrested. They are all being charged with ‘distributing materials likely to cause a breach of the peace,’ under Section 37 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. Jenni Williams has a further charge against her for ‘publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State’ under Section 31 of the same Act.
Some WOZA members appeared in court on 30 May and others on 31 May. After initially being granted bail, the state prosecutor then won an appeal against granting them bail and all 14 were remanded in custody.

The thirteen women are being held at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and the male WOZA member is being held at Harare Central Remand Prison. Reports indicate that conditions in both of these prisons are deplorable and fall well below international standards.

Sufficient blankets and warm clothing have not been provided to the WOZA detainees, which is of particular concern as it is currently winter in Zimbabwe. They are being remanded in custody until 6 June when they will appear in court again.

Amnesty International understands that the WOZA members were arrested and detained purely because they were attempting to exercise their universally guaranteed rights to freedom of association and assembly.

Though WOZA members have been arrested on dozens of occasions since the formation of the organisation in 2003, the most recent arrests are part of a wider crackdown on human rights defenders, trade unionists, lawyers, journalists, election observers and opposition activists in the wake of the parliamentary and presidential elections of 29 March.