Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Zimbabwe

The human rights environment in Zimbabwe continued to stabilise throughout 2010 and the economy grew stronger. Many well-respected human rights defenders acknowledge that the situation, while still serious, has greatly improved from 2008 when violence erupted after the election and before the presidential run-off election. Levels of harassment and abuse have reduced since the Government of National Unity took office in February 2009.

The year 2010 saw other steps forward. The country-wide consultation on a new constitution brought isolated outbreaks of violence, including one death in Harare, but overall did not produce the expected tensions that many observers had predicted. The Zimbabwean government, through the judiciary, made progress in beginning to look at how it can strengthen its role in administering family law. Most protest marches proceeded without trouble, and often with police cooperation. Licences were awarded to another four independent newspapers and the reports of human rights abuses that were occurring in the Chiadzwa diamond mining area have largely diminished. Reginald Austin was appointed as head of the Human Rights Commission.

Notwithstanding this, however, it remains the case that minimal progress has been achieved in bringing about the reforms that would underpin fundamental and sustainable improvements to human rights, governance and political freedoms. A culture of impunity remained throughout the year, and the attorney-general's office continued to pursue prosecutions on a political basis. The use of torture as a tool for questioning by police and the military continued to go unchallenged by the state and the Human Rights Commission was unable to start its work because implementing legislation had not yet been passed to parliament.

Encouraging an improvement in human rights and good governance remained central to UK policy. We continued, along with the EU, to support the Government of National Unity and its commitment to improving human rights and ongoing wider reforms. Our Embassy in Harare worked with NGOs, human rights defenders and other diplomatic missions in 2010 to ensure effective monitoring of the human rights situation and coordination of development assistance. We continued to support the efforts of the southern African region to secure implementation of the Global Political Agreement which underpins the Government of National Unity. Ministers regularly discussed Zimbabwe with their counterparts in the region.

A new and properly constructed constitution will be important for building the foundations for democracy in Zimbabwe. We supported several civil society groups in their efforts to increase citizen awareness of their human rights, raise people's expectations of the state, and provide support for a constitution which reflects the will of the people and strengthens democracy in Zimbabwe. In 2010 we spent more than £1.5 million on support to human rights defenders, including on developing capacity for monitoring, access to legal advice and support for victims of abuse.

The period since the formation of the Government of National Unity has seen a significant reduction in the level of human rights violations but the renewed focus on possible elections has brought to mind for many Zimbabweans the violence, displacement and harassment of 2008. The memory of those violations is still fresh and remains a powerful tool of coercion. There remains a danger of human rights deteriorating in the run-up to future elections.

Under the terms of the Global Political Agreement, Zimbabweans were due to vote on a new constitution in early 2011, although this date has already been delayed by several months and now seems unlikely to happen before September. Although the first phase of the constitutional process unfolded more smoothly than many anticipated, there remains the potential for individuals and organisations promoting draft versions of the constitution that are not favoured by hard-line elements to be subject to intimidation.

Therefore, we expect our main focus in 2011 to be encouraging the successful completion of the constitutional process laid down in the Global Political Agreement, and the putting in place of conditions to allow for the eventual holding of free and fair elections. Steps to nurture and extend the voice of civil society and to protect human rights defenders will remain a key element in our effort to bring about an improvement in human rights and governance and to ensure that free and fair elections can take place.

Access to justice

The justice system in Zimbabwe continues to be controlled by a system of patronage which stifles judicial independence and continues to create a lack of confidence around the rule of law. Two pieces of legislation, the Public Order and Security Act 2002, and the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, were regularly abused by the attorney-general's office, which is headed by political hardliner Johannes Tomana. Section 121 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, which ensures that a defendant remains in custody for at least a further seven days, was regularly invoked by prosecutors after magistrates awarded bail to a defendant. For example, on 22 November, a prosecutor used this mechanism to prevent bail of $100 that had been granted to Nqobani Ndlovu, a reporter for the independently owned Standard newspaper.

The Supreme Court is slow in hearing cases and reaching judgments but one high-profile case was concluded in 2010. The Supreme Court agreed with the claim of Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu of Women of Zimbabwe Arise that their constitutional rights were violated by their imprisonment in 2008. The pair subsequently began proceedings to sue the police over their imprisonment and the way they had been treated but the slow nature of justice does little to curb the culture of impunity that surrounds state-sponsored violence and abuse.

A more positive sign was the judiciary's stakeholder conference in November to discuss establishing a formal family court. This bodes well for the future.

Political interference was suspected in many cases involving opposition politicians and other human rights defenders in 2010. In May, the trial of Senator Roy Bennett of the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T), was finally brought to a close by the High Court's dismissal of the prosecution's case. The trial, which began on 19 October 2009, saw Senator Bennett charged with terrorism, insurgence, sabotage and banditry and carried the death penalty. Senator Bennett's swearing in as deputy minister of agriculture was one of MDC-T's key outstanding issues under the Zimbabwean Global Political Agreement. However, the attorney-general appealed against the acquittal and the chief justice reserved judgment in July on whether the appeal should be allowed. In a further twist Judge Chinembiri Bhunu, who was responsible for the acquittal, issued a summons in September against Senator Bennett for defamation. Senator Bennett is now in exile to avoid the constant harassment he has suffered.

Our Embassy monitored many such court cases and embassy staff often attended court in person to support human rights defenders who were facing prosecution.

Death penalty

The death penalty continues to be handed down as a sentence, although executions are rarely carried out. There were 55 people on death row at the end of 2010, including two women. The last execution was carried out in 2005 but the most recent death sentence was issued in 2010. The EU unsuccessfully lobbied the Zimbabwean government to support a UN General Assembly resolution proposing a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Torture and other ill treatment

The use of torture remains endemic across Zimbabwe, and it is regularly used by police officers when interviewing suspects in criminal cases. It has also been used by the security sector in politically motivated interrogations. In 2010, we helped to provide assistance for victims of torture and also supported studies on the use of torture in Zimbabwe.

Prisons and detention issues

Overcrowding, unhygienic conditions and inadequate nutrition and medical care continue to be problems in Zimbabwe's prisons. Infectious diseases can spread rapidly in these conditions. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been feeding inmates in 26 Zimbabwean prisons since April 2009. We support local groups in Zimbabwe who work to raise the profile of prisoners' welfare and to provide legal advice to inmates.

Human rights defenders

The state harassed human rights defenders sporadically throughout 2010, particularly those who spoke out against the state or against the "Kariba" version of the constitution, which is preferred by the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Several court cases were resurrected after they had been dismissed months or years earlier. In November, a high court judge rejected an attempt to appeal against the acquittal seven months earlier of prominent human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama and high court clerk Constance Gambara. Prosecutors also reissued a summons for 13 leaders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise that dated back to 2008.

Two human rights defenders who were threatened, trade unionist Gertrude Hambira and journalist Stanley Kwenda, fled the country in fear for their safety. Mr Kwenda had received a death threat after writing a story about a senior police officer. Gertrude Hambira, secretary-general of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe, had released a documentary and report critical of the effects on farm workers of the government's land seizures. Three months later, Ms Hambira and some of her colleagues were interrogated by the Joint Operations Command, a body that contains senior military and government figures and coordinates state security. At a similar time, police questioned three members of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions for conducting a civic education workshop. They were detained for five hours before being released without charge.

The arrest of Farai Maguwu, executive director of the Centre for Research and Development, on 3 June brought international attention. The Centre was the leading civil society organisation reporting on human rights abuses and level of compliance with Kimberley Process standards in the diamond-producing area of Chiadzwa. Mr Maguwu was charged with publishing falsehoods against the state with the intention to cause prejudice to the security or economic interests of the country. His arrest came after he had shown a confidential government document he had obtained to the Kimberley Process monitor, Abbey Chikane. Mr Maguwu remained in police custody for five days before his first court appearance, considerably longer than the permitted 48 hours. In court, the prosecutor declared that he would "rot in jail". In contravention of the court order, police removed Mr Maguwu from Harare's Remand Prison on 11 June for four days without informing his lawyers and denied him access to his medicine or medical treatment. Prosecutors eventually withdrew the charges in October.

Generally, however, space for civil society continued to open up during 2010. A surprising amount of criticism aimed at the government was allowed to be aired in the independent press, in public debates and in civil society publications. Several marches and demonstrations were held peacefully, many with police cooperation. But civil society groups and the MDC-T were still unable to rely on an unrestricted right to assembly. In late October, the police prevented Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai from holding meetings with supporters in three Harare suburbs, claiming that they had not been informed in time. The Women of Zimbabwe Arise protest march through Harare on International Day of Peace in September led to 83 members being charged with criminal nuisance.

Another positive sign is that the slew of charges against MDC-T members of parliament seen in 2009 slowed in 2010, although some MPs and MDC-T activists and supporters were still harassed and arrested. Four MDC-T MPs were sentenced in 2009 on spurious charges and suspended from parliament. Three of them, Ernest Mudavanhu, Mathias Mlambo and Shuah Mudiwa, have since won appeals against their convictions and that of the fourth, Meki Makuyana, is waiting to be heard.

Freedom of expression

State broadcasting outlets and one of the daily newspapers are controlled by ZANU-(PF) and continue to broadcast or publish ZANU-(PF) propaganda. However, there are lively independent newspapers in Zimbabwe which publish with greater openness than may be expected. Independent journalists were, on occasion, harassed during 2010. Police served summonses on two journalists with the Zimbabwe Independent that related to a story about the police commissioner's opposition to electoral reforms. But all broadcast media is state-owned and no new broadcast licences have been issued. We welcomed the issuing of licences to four new daily newspapers and the fact that the BBC can now report from Zimbabwe.

Artists also faced harassment in 2010. Owen Maseko, a Bulawayo-based artist, was arrested in March for undermining the authority of or insulting the president and causing offence to a particular race, or religion. His crime was to exhibit an installation that depicted Joshua Nkomo bleeding from the neck as he signed the agreement with President Mugabe to form a unity government in the 1980s. Mr Maseko's case was referred to the Supreme Court to assess whether his constitutional rights had been violated by his arrest. Mr Maseko's gallery director, Voti Thebe, was also arrested and photographs of the election violence in 2008 from an exhibition hosted by ZimRights were removed temporarily by the police.

Freedom of religion and belief

Zimbabwe generally displays tolerance towards different religions. However, the Anglican bishops of Harare and Manicaland and their congregations have been harassed, prevented from worshiping, and even tear-gassed by police acting on behalf of Nolbert Kunonga, a former bishop who has established a parallel Church and taken possession of the Anglican Church's property. We were in regular contact with the Anglican Church, both in the UK and in Zimbabwe, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Women's rights

Zimbabwe has women in many high-profile positions, in politics, the civil service and commerce. But because many families cannot afford to pay school fees, girls are often overlooked in favour of their male siblings when parents are deciding which of their children to educate. As in other countries, women and girls carry a disproportionately heavy burden when it comes to poverty, lack of access to education and health services and lack of productive opportunities.

We maintained a close relationship with several women's rights groups and our Embassy in Harare participated in several activities alongside the Ministry of Women's Affairs, Gender and Community Development, helping to develop the role of women in Zimbabwe. Our Embassy also worked with a domestic violence unit to help police deal with cases of gender-based violence.

Minorities and other discriminated groups

Homosexuality remains illegal in Zimbabwe. Two officers of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe were charged with possessing drugs and prohibited publications after a raid on their offices in May. They were held in police custody for longer than the 48 hours permitted by Zimbabwean law before appearing in court. Both officers were eventually acquitted. Generally, however, the state prefers to turn a blind eye to the LGBT community.

Other issues: Farmers

More than 200 commercial famers continued to face prosecution, intimidation and harassment as they fought to remain on their farms in 2010. Farm evictions continued, often accompanied by violence and looting of property. The evictions contravene the terms of the Global Political Agreement, as well as the Southern African Development Community ruling of November 2008 and deter investors just when Zimbabwe wishes to rebuild its economy. Farm workers and farm owners have been displaced and we have worked with organisations to re-skill 600 women, many of whom are displaced ex-farm workers who have become marginalised. We will continue to make clear our concerns to the government of Zimbabwe and our support for a fair and transparent process of land reform in favour of the poorer sectors of the community.


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