‘Post-election attacks on civilians and human rights defenders worrying’

Although citizens have remained calm in the wake of disputed elections, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (the Forum) is concerned that attacks on civilians and human rights defenders are increasing in the post-election period.

The Forum expressed concern at the kidnapping of two opposition activists, including newly elected Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) Ward 27 Glen Norah councillor Womberaishe Nhende and colleague Sanele Mkhuhlane, on September 2, 2023.

On September 4, 2023, two human rights lawyers, Douglas Coltart and Tapiwa Muchineripi, members of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and legal representatives of Nhende and Mkhuhlane, were detained around 11 pm in the course of discharging their mandate.

“The Forum is deeply worried that the attacks on civilians and human rights defenders through arrests, torture and abductions in the post-election phase are escalating whilst citizens continue to remain peaceful throughout,” said the organisation in a statement released on September 6, 2023.

The organisation added it was also worrying how the abduction and arrest have occurred just three days after the commemoration of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30, 2023.

According to the Forum, Nhende was abducted, tortured, and disappeared for the second time in June 2020, when he was “severely tortured while in police custody and later succumbed to the “victim turned accused” trend.

In light of this troubling backdrop, the Forum strongly urges the government to withdraw all charges against the human rights lawyers immediately so that they can provide legal guidance to their clients in accordance with Section 69 (1) of the Constitution.

The Forum also demanded that authorities “investigate and apprehend the perpetrators of the abduction and torture of Nhende and Mkhuhlane.”

“We remind the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) that the institution is compelled at law to investigate first before arresting anyone,” said the organisation, which added authorities must accede and ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). 

“Operationalise the Zimbabwe Independent Complaints Commission envisaged in terms of Section 210 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.”

Apart from Nhende and Mkhuhlane, the Forum stated that during the election time, it received reports of abductions involving Givemore Chari in Marambapfungwe Constituency and Nelson Mukwenha in Highfields, Harare. 

Concerning the arrests of Coltart and Muchineripi, the Forum said lawyers have the right to preserve their clients’ dignity, as protected by Section 51 of the Constitution. 

“It is alleged that the two human rights lawyers advised the police that their clients, Nhende and Mkhuhlane were in no position to be interviewed as they were still nursing injuries from the abduction and torture they sustained. The human rights lawyers were then charged with obstructing and or defeating the course of justice as defined by Section 184 (1) (e) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act,” said the Forum.

The Forum also said it was concerning that the interviewing of victims of abduction and torture whilst in hospital has become “somewhat the modus operandi of police.”

“This is reminiscent of the case of the Honourable Member of Parliament for Harare West Joana Mamombe who was abducted but was subsequently arrested and faced trial with the duo of Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova,” said the Forum.

Furthermore, the Forum said it was not a criminal offence to provide legal representation to anyone who needs it as the right to legal representation is guaranteed in Section 69 (1) of the Constitution. 

The Forum reiterates that the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers Article 18 espouses that a lawyer should not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as they discharge their functions.

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