Sep 29

Zimbabwe: Mnangagwa fails to break with the past, fuels cycle of abuse and impunity

By Amnesty International

Shrinking civic space, crackdown on human rights and attack on peaceful dissent intensifies; Mnangagwa followed Mugabe’s steps in misusing laws as instrument of oppression; False hopes for a new Zimbabwe as former regime’s legacy of violence, oppression and impunity endures.

The government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe has failed to live up to its promises for change and break with Robert Mugabe’s brutal human rights legacy, Amnesty International said in a briefing today.

Following an election marred with human rights violations, president Mnangagwa was elected, and a new cabinet announced. The briefing outlines a human rights agenda for Mnangagwa’s second term in office and calls for him and his cabinet to improve and prioritize human rights in Zimbabwe.

Human rights under attack: A review of Zimbabwe’s human rights record in the period 2018-2023, details how authorities have systematically supressed peaceful dissent, making it increasingly challenging for people to freely express their opinions. The briefing also describes a disturbing trend towards the militarization of policing and a rise in the use of excessive force by law enforcement during protests.

Amnesty International found that individuals who speak out or organize protests often face persecution. In some cases, relatives of protesters have been targeted and harassed as a way of intimidating activists. Abduction of human rights defenders and activists has also been on the rise.

“The Mnangagwa administration has lost a historic opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and, instead, has ramped up efforts to suppress human rights,” said Khanyo Farisè, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southern Africa.

“The cyclical nature of violence will continue until there is genuine political will to uphold human rights and end impunity. The Zimbabwean government must make genuine efforts to deal with the past injustices to ensure that history does not repeat itself.”

Legislate to repress

Under the Mugabe administration, authorities amended existing legislation or introduced new laws with the excuse of protecting national security or facilitating access to information, to target dissenting views and groups, and limit the space for political debate. More recently, authorities have followed similar repressive practices.

In 2002, the Mugabe administration passed the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which was misused to thwart the growing influence of opposition groups and other critical voices.

A little over two decades later, in July 2023, under President Mnangagwa authorities passed the Amendment to the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act or the Patriotic Bill. It follows in the same tradition of the AIPPA and criminalizes “wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe.” The Amendment frames the offence in vague and overly broad terms which opens it up for abuse by the state. It also provides for the use of the death penalty.

Both pieces of legislation were introduced in the run-up to an election and affected people’s ability to freely express themselves, and exchange information and ideas.

“The Mnangagwa administration has continued to misuse the law to crack down on human rights and on anybody who dares to voice a dissenting opinion,” said Khanyo Farisè.

“The enactment into law of the Amendment to the Criminal Code will invariably have a chilling effect on would-be dissenters, particularly given the hefty penalties it carries.”

Other pieces of legislation that were amended, or introduced, by the current administration and have had a chilling effect on civil society include the Cyber and Data Protection Act [Chapter 12:07] (No. 5 of 2021), the Freedom of Information Act, 2020 (which replaces the AIPPA), the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act [Chapter 11:23], and the Private Voluntary Organizations Amendment Bill, H.B. 10, 2021.

In September 2022, authorities used the Cyber and Data Protection Act to arrest two journalists. Wisdom Mudzungairi, the editor-in-chief of Alpha Media Holdings and editor of NewsDay newspaper, and Desmond Chingarande, a senior reporter at NewsDay, were arrested for allegedly transmitting false data with intend to cause harm. They were summoned to Harare Central Police Station. They were questioned in connection with a story they had published on a private business enterprise believed to be run by individuals with connections to the government. They were charged with transmitting “false data intending to cause harm” and released three hours later after their lawyers assured officers that they would be available for further questioning when needed.

Their stories illustrate a wider pattern of systematic attacks on media freedom with at least 15 journalists reporting being assaulted, arrested, or detained by security agents in 2021 alone for carrying out their legitimate work.

Hopewell Chin’ono, a freelance journalist and anti-corruption activist, faced repeated police intimidation and harassment. He was detained three times and more for than 80 days between July 2020 and January 2021. This was due to his efforts to expose allegations of government corruption and advocate for the right to peaceful assembly.

A number of other laws have also been used to stop people from voicing dissenting opinions and organizing with others.

In 2022, Zimbabwean author and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga, along with activist Julie Barnes, were convicted and sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence for allegedly “inciting violence” following their participation in a protest on 31 July 2020. However, they successfully appealed against both conviction and sentence.

The political reprisals intensified as Zimbabwe drew nearer to the 2023 general elections, when Mnangagwa was elected for a second term. In January for example, 25 members of the opposition political party Citizen’s Coalition for Change (CCC) were arrested and physically assaulted for holding a meeting at a private residence in Budiriro.

On 17 May, six students from the University of Zimbabwe –Benjamin Watadza, Emmanuel Chitima, Comfort Mpofu, Lionel Madamombe, Gamuchirai Chaburumunda and Darlington Chigwena– were arrested after they staged a peaceful protest in Harare.

Amnesty International calls on the Zimbabwe authorities to uphold and adhere to the 2013 Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations, and ensure that the values and principles, and the human rights they enshrine are effectively respected, protected, promoted, and fulfilled.

The organization also urged regional heads of state including at the Southern African Development Community and the African Union to play their part in ensuring human rights are a reality for all in Zimbabwe, and on the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to conduct a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of human rights violations in the country. The African Commission should publicly condemn the growing crackdown on human rights in Zimbabwe and call on the authorities to uphold their obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.