The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (the Forum) condemns the unlawful arrest and continued detention of the National Coordinator of the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), Jenni Williams and her deputy, Magodonga Mahlangu. The Forum calls for the immediate and unconditional release of the two women who are being incarcerated for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of association and assembly. The two were arrested on October 16th, 2008 in Bulawayo during a peaceful demonstration to call for immediate access to food aid for Zimbabweans to stave off
hunger and possible starvation. They are being held in squalid conditions at Mlondolozi Female Prison. The arrest is a clear violation of the WOZA leaders’ fundamental right to freedom of assembly and association guaranteed in the
Constitution of Zimbabwe and international conventions to which Zimbabwe is a State Party. The action is also in breach of Section 12.1 (a) of the 15th September Global Political Agreement under which the principals of the three political parties to the agreement undertook to “guarantee full implementation” of these rights.
Williams and Mahlangu were part of a group of nine who were arrested during the demonstration on allegations of disturbing the peace, security or order of the public under Section 13(1)a of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. Their seven colleagues were later released without charge. The Forum has been closely monitoring the two’s detention and is appalled by the tardiness of the court system in dealing with the matter.
On 21 October, judgment on an application for bail was reserved until the 24th of October because the magistrate’s court was said to be too busy to deal with the matter any sooner. On the 24th of October the matter was again postponed because the presiding magistrate had reportedly gone to a workshop. Judgment was finally handed
down on the 27th of October with the application for bail being turned down on the basis that the two had a propensity to commit the same crime as demonstrated by their previous cases of the same nature, and that there was no evidence to show that they would be able to attend trial if given bail because they were hardly ever at their places of residence. This reasoning is erroneous as the two women have not been previously convicted of a similar offence, neither have they ever skipped bail. They have been removed from remand for all previous cases of a similar nature.
The Forum is further dismayed to learn that the undue delays experienced at the Magistrates’ Court are now being encountered at the High Court level as well. An urgent High Court application challenging the decision of the magistrates’ court was filed on October 27th but to date the WOZA leaders are still awaiting a decision
regarding their appeal. The judge who heard the application is reportedly away in Hwange and the file could not be located so that another judge could attend to this very urgent matter. The conduct against Williams and Mahlangu calls into question the sincerity and commitment of President Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe Republic Police to allow
for legitimate political and civic activities to take place in accordance with the September 15 Agreement. Their arrest is part of government’s clampdown on human rights defenders who are campaigning to highlight the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe. It clearly demonstrates that the government has not relented in its crackdown on the activities of human rights defenders.
The Forum is disturbed by these continued human rights violations and calls upon:
a) The authorities to immediately cease such harassment of members of WOZA and to allow human rights defenders to freely associate and assemble if they are sincere in opening up democratic space in Zimbabwe and allowing free
political and civic participation as a means of contributing to the resolution of the crisis in our country.
b) The Zimbabwe Republic Police to immediately stop the practice of arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders and the heavy handed manner in which they continue to deal with unarmed peaceful protesters. The police must respect the individuals’ rights to associate, assemble and freely express themselves as enshrined in the Constitution of Zimbabwe and international treaties that Zimbabwe is party to.
c) The Justice delivery system to exercise due diligence in dealing with matters before them and not cause unnecessarily prolonged periods of deprived liberty to individuals.
The Forum strongly recommends that a new government makes the reform of state institutions like the police and the judiciary its priority so that citizens of Zimbabwe can regain confidence in them.