BY VARAIDZO MUDEWAIRI/KENNETH NYANGANI HUMAN rights defenders have lamented heightened criminalisation of human rights defenders in the country which they say was a strategy to silence dissent ahead of next year’s polls.
This came out during a Twitter space discussion on Wednesday hosted by the Southern Defenders to discuss criminalisation of human rights defenders.
Zimbabwe NGO Forum programmes co-ordinator Wilbert Mandinde said: “We are facing challenges in terms of criminalisation of human rights defenders, and we think this is one of the strategies used to silence those who are deemed dissenters. We are also aware of the disturbances in Nyatsime two weeks ago and as the NGO Forum we have handled three cases involving 13 different accused persons from Nyatsime all alleged to be members of CCC (Citizens Coalition for Change) who have been denied bail at Harare Magistrates Court.”
He said arrest and crafting of oppressive laws such as the amendments to the Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO) Act, which is currently before Parliament pointed to criminalisation of human rights defenders in the country.
Zanu PF spokesperson Christopher Mutsvangwa recently said the party would use its parliamentary majority to fast-track the Bill to deal with NGOs that it accuses of working with Western countries to allegedly champion a regime change agenda.
Contributing to the discussion, Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president Obert Masaraure said: “We currently have two CCC legislators Job Sikhala (Zengeza West) and Godfrey Sithole Chitungwiza North) in remand prison having been denied bail by the magistrate court. Sikhala has been arrested several times, and this might be the 20th. All these issues signify an aspect of repression.”
Human rights lawyer Lucy Chivasa bemoaned selective application of the law.
“The practice of human rights, especially by human rights defenders has become something that is not free in terms of the space we are operating in as the space keeps closing by use of the repressive laws and use of selective application of the law. At times the things that are criminalised for certain groups of people are not criminalised for other groups of people,” Chivasa said.
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She said when CCC activist Moreblessing Ali was brutally murdered in Nyatsime last month and political violence then broke out in the area, only members of the opposition were arrested.
“It takes time for known perpetrators to be arrested. There is judicial harassment. This is being used as a tool to silence those who would want to claim their rights, to demonstrate or to be vocal,” she said.
“Talking about the PVO Amendment Bill, I feel that the laws and the practices around the civic space are meant to close down spaces ahead of the elections next year. It is not really a free space for people to operate and express their views.”
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (CiZC) youth committee chairperson Douglas Tigere said that his organisation will stand firm in the fight for a democratic Zimbabwe despite the shrinking democratic space.
“Criminalisation of civil society work has no place in a democratic society. The arrest of civil society actors confirms our worst fears of the intentions by the state to persecute civil society actors and further close the democratic space ahead of 2023 elections,” Tigere said.
Human rights activist Farai Maguwu said: “Arrests of human rights defenders are happening at a time when the new dispensation promised to open a new chapter of democracy, human rights and governance. No one imagined that four years later defending human rights will be criminalised.”
Human rights lawyer Passmore Nyakureba said criminalisation of human rights defenders, especially towards elections must not be accepted.
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