WASHINGTON — Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Zimbabwe’s security forces used excessive lethal force to crush nationwide protests in mid-January this year following President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s announcement of fuel price increase of up to 150 percent.
In its latest report, HRW said the crackdown against protesters is continuing in the country despite national and international calls for Mnangagwa’s government to halt the arbitrary arrests.
“Zimbabwe security forces carried out killings, rape, torture, and other grave abuses during and since the January protests,” said Dewa Mavinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Mavhinga noted that “the authorities should arrest and prosecute those responsible for abuses and send a strong message that crimes by the security forces won’t be tolerated.”
He said while the protests have ended, the crackdown continues mainly in Harare. “The government’s failure to address the issues underlying the protests, including the hike in fuel prices, means the situation could deteriorate further.”
Human Rights Watch’s findings are based on interviews with 45 victims of abuses and their family members, witnesses, activists, medical personnel, lawyers, police officers, and others during a research trip to Harare, Epworth, and Chitungwiza in February, and phone interviews since January.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) told Human Rights Watch that they provided emergency medical services to 81 people with gunshot injuries in Harare, Bulawayo, Gweru, Karoi, Chinhoyi, Chitungwiza, Kadoma, and Mutare between January 14 and January 29. Among those killed was 22-year-old footballer Kelvin Tinashe Choto, whom police shot in the head during protests in Chitungwiza on January 14.
In Mbare, a suburb of Harare, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police and soldiers fatally shot in the neck Tony Nyapokoto, a 36-year-old driver, in front of his house on January 15. Patricia Kamuriwo, 36, said she was shot in the thighs as she crossed the road to look for her child when security forces fired on protesters on January 14, in Epworth, near Harare.
“Security forces appeared to use the crackdown to commit numerous cases of rape.” Eight women from Hopley, Southlea Park, and Epworth in Harare province told Human Rights Watch in separate interviews that they were raped by uniformed and armed soldiers and police, some concealing their identities with masks.
“A 46-year-old woman said that nine armed men, six in army uniform, came to her house in Epworth on January 15 at about 9 p.m. Two soldiers raped her without condoms in front of her teenage son. At the local police station, the police refused to record her complaint, telling her, ‘these things happen, these things are happening all over the country, so we cannot receive your report or open a police case docket’.”
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) reported that police and army personnel carried out apparently indiscriminate door-to-door raids, forcibly entering homes by breaking doors and windows, in some Harare suburbs including Mabvuku, Dzivarasekwa, Warren Park, and Kuwadzana between January 14 and January 29.
Human Rights Watch found that the security forces rounded up and detained hundreds of people, many of whom were brought before the courts on charges of public violence and criminal nuisance, most of whom remain in detention.
“The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, security forces need to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Law enforcement officials should not use firearms against people except to protect against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.”
Some protesters burned cars at a police station in Chitungwiza, barricaded roads, burned tires on roads to stop police vehicles from patrolling, assaulted people on the streets, and looted shops in Harare, Kadoma, and Bulawayo, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission.
In a January 28 report, the commission found that law enforcement agents seemed to “resort to use of brute, excessive and disproportionate force in most circumstances thereby causing avoidable loss of life and also worsening the situation.”
On January 20, army and police officials jointly addressed the media and denied responsibility for abuses during the protests, blaming the violence on protesters who allegedly stole their uniforms and acted as “rogue cops and soldiers.”
Two days later, Mnangagwa tweeted that “violence or misconduct by our security forces is unacceptable and a betrayal of the new Zimbabwe. Chaos and insubordination will not be tolerated. Misconduct will be investigated. If required, heads will roll.”
Human Rights Watch stressed that leaders in southern Africa should impress upon Mnangagwa the need for prompt, impartial, and effective investigations into the violence.
On February 11, the chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Namibian President Hage Geingob, blamed demonstrators for the violence. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who met with Mnangagwa in Harare on Tuesday, has not in recent public statements on Zimbabwe even mentioned the human rights situation in the country.
Mavhinga said, “Southern Africa leaders should press Mnangagwa to put an end to security force abuses and ensure those responsible are brought to justice. Instead of burying his head in the sand when it comes to human rights, President Ramaphosa should publicly urge his Zimbabwean counterpart to deliver on his promise to get to the bottom of these allegations and hold perpetrators to account.”
Presidential spokesperson George Charamba was unavailable for comment.