The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) condemns today’s arrest of Leo Chamahwinya, an employee from the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights), for allegedly conducting “illegal voter registration” activities. The arrest of Mr. Chamahwinya follows at least two other recent instances in which ZimRights officials were detained by local authorities on dubious grounds.
A growing chorus of activists across Zimbabwe assert that today’s raid on the ZimRights office is part of a massive crackdown on the NGO community, one that is expected to intensify as the country moves toward a constitutional referendum and a national election in 2013. Indeed, the RFK Center has noted a troubling increase of intimidation and harassment of civil society organizations over the past several months.
In August of this year, the headquarters of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Zimbabwe (GALZ) was ransacked on multiple occasions, during which visibly drunk riot police assaulted GALZ employees and seized office materials. Authorities later attempted to shut down GALZ operations altogether, charging a co-chairperson with running an “unregistered” organization, the same rationale used to arrest and detain the director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum the previous month. Most recently, several employees from the Counseling Services Unit (CSU)—a nonprofit organization that provides support to victims of torture and political violence—were arrested and illegally detained because CSU was allegedly in possession of “offensive and subversive material.” This past week, two officials from the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network (ZESN) were detained for organizing an “unsanctioned public meeting” on International Human Rights Day. These escalating instances of repression coincide with an overall rise in police brutality, including the resort to both tribal and ethnic justifications for the violent mistreatment of citizens. During a November 13 altercation with Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), on-duty police officers assaulted peaceful demonstrators without provocation and, in doing so, verbally referenced the Gukurahundi massacres and ordered WOZA members to not speak in their native Ndebele language.
“The rights to civic participation, assembly, association, and freedom of expression are fundamental for any democratic society,” said Santiago A. Canton, Director of Partners for Human Rights at the RFK Center. “The protection of these rights is vital in a country like Zimbabwe, which is currently undergoing a profound democratic exercise that includes an upcoming referendum and plans for a watershed election. Political leaders should act immediately to cease the undue harassment of NGOs and civic actors throughout the country.”
The RFK Center has repeatedly expressed concern at the human rights crisis in Zimbabwe, calling attention to the closing of democratic space and the unabated harassment of human rights defenders by the Zimbabwe Republic Police. The RFK Center maintains that the Inclusive Government must respect the basic rights, and meet its own obligations, as enshrined in the constitution and in legally binding international conventions.
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“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Robert F. Kennedy