DRAGNET arrests of 39 civic society actors from Election Resource Centre (ERC) and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) on election day who had jointly set up two data centres in Harare for observation of the harmonised elections has been roundly condemned by the African Union and COMESA as well as the European Union (EU) observer missions.
The British Embassy also condemned the arrests. One centre was at Holiday Inn and another one in the Grange in Harare.
On the night of August 23, armed police raided both data centers, the organisations’ offices; arrested staff and volunteers present and confiscated equipment such as phones and laptops. ERC and ZEN are independent, non-partisan organisations accredited to observe the election.
Both organisations have been observing elections and supporting democratic, peaceful processes in Zimbabwe.
As part of these efforts, ERC and ZESN analyse publicly available information and direct observations from accredited observers as recognised in the Zimbabwe electoral code. Therefore, the organisations’ operations were well within the law.
In its observation report, the AU and Comesa said they noted with concern arrest of the ZESN and ERC observers.
“The mission is deeply concerned about the arrest of 39 civuil society actors and the confiscation of computers and documents from the Election Resource Centre (ERC) and Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN). The mission recommends that investigations are expedited within the legal provisions,” said the mission.
The joint mission of the AU and Comesa also said the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Amendment ACT is reducing the democratic space so far gained.
“Despite the challenges expressed regarding accreditation, the mission notes that 3 572 citizen observers were accredited for the 2023 harmonised elections. However the accreditation fee of US$10 for each observer and requirement to appear in person at the accreditation centres were noted as impeding factors on the number of observers CSOs could deploy hence reducing their capacity in playing a meaningful role in democratic consolidation in Zimbabwe,” reads the mission’s statement.
The European Union also condemned the dragnet arrests. “On election night, there was a raid conducted across four locations in Harare, including at the Holiday Inn where the EU EOM and other international observation groups are based.
“In these actions, 39 people from ZESN (Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network) and ERC (Electoral Resource Centre) were arrested; a police statement the next morning clarified that it was for “coordinating the alleged release of election results”.
“These organisations are part of the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors (GNDEM), a network that follows the Declaration of Principles for non-partisan election observation. Their initial denial of legal counsel for some 12 hours raised significant concerns,” said the EU observer team.
The British embassy said independent observers must be respected and allowed to do their work.
“We also echo the concerns of IEOMs regarding the arrest of 41 staff members from local election monitoring group arrested by the Zimbabwean police on the night of 23 August. Independent observers must be able to carry out their duties freely,” said the embassy is a statement.
ERC and ZESN also condemned the arrest of its observers.
“We express concern over the raiding of the ERC and ZESN Data centres and the arbitrary arrest and safety of staff members who were gathering electoral information by law enforcement agents last night. Moreover, the safety of the broader ERC and ZESN family, their members, observers, volunteers and partners is compromised
“At this point, ERC and ZESN’s ability to promote transparency and accountability of the election has been severely undermined. ERC and ZESN are a signatory of the Declaration of Global Principles for ElectionObservation and Monitoring by citizen organisations which sets standards for the conduct for observers and underscores the importance of independent, professional and credible election observation.
“The rights of citizen election observers are recognised by the UNSpecial Rapporteurs on Human Rights defenders who explicitly urge Member States to “take all necessary steps to establish conditions that allow national and international election observers to effectively do their work, and to protect them from any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of their legitimate exercise of their rights and freedoms,” reads the statement.
The organisations also insisted that from the information they gathered throughout the Electoral cycle, they will be in a position to appraise the credibility of elections as provided for in Section 40 G of the Electoral Act, SADC Principles and Guidelines on Conducting Democratic Elections, Article 22 of ACDEG, as well as international fundamental obligations.
Meanwhile, the ERC and ZESN staff and volunteers arrested were given US$200 bail at the Harare magistrates court on Friday.