Reports last week of the arrest and alleged assault of opposition supporters by members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police are a disturbing indication that the country has entered the ever dreaded election period.
Police said they arrested, charged and fined the five supporters of the new political party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) for public nuisance. They said the five were blocking a pavement and obstructing human traffic on a street in Harare.
Their victims however appeared in public, battered and bruised upon release from police custody. Some of them were taken to hospital for treatment. They claimed they were heavily assaulted while in police custody and that the police that assaulted them accused them of dressing in yellow, the colours of the new Nelson Chamisa-led party.
The mandate of the police is to investigate cases, press charges and hand over accused persons to the courts whose prerogative it is to pass judgements.
Assaulting suspects in police custody taints the image of a police force that is already struggling to shake off an ugly tag of corruption. This unrestrained behaviour erodes the little credibility left in the ZRP as a professional body.
It is incidents such as these that soil the country’s human rights record which Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi struggled unsuccessfully to defend last week. He was representing Zimbabwe at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) meeting on the country’s human rights situation.
The meeting produced a damning report on the state of human rights in Zimbabwe, the barometer that will determine the country’s status when it comes to relations with the world. It has in past resulted in the country being isolated and placed under economic sanctions.
Zimbabwe is now in election mode and police brutality has always characterised the political landscape in virtually every election.
Such violence and repressive behaviour by the police have been the reason for the insistence by opposition political players to have police and military commanders barred from directly involving themselves in politics.
Police and military commanders have almost always openly declared their allegiance to the ruling Zanu PF party — a direct message to the rank and file on how to conduct themselves in the execution of their duties during election time.
When incidents such as last week’s arrest and alleged assault of opposition supporters happen, the opposition finds reason to believe they are under siege again. This is the reason why they run everywhere looking for security sector reforms.
When people are arrested, beaten up and targeted for simply wearing their party regalia in town, it makes for evidence that the prevailing political atmosphere is not safe enough for voters to openly declare support for political parties of their choice.
That is where issues of election credibility and leadership legitimacy begin. Political intolerance and undue politicisation of national security institutions need to be nipped in the bud.