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‘Zim’s rights record deteriorates’



ZIMBABWE’S human rights record worsened in 2023, with findings by Human Rights Watch (HRW) showing a deterioration in electoral integrity, civil liberties, gender equality, land rights and a surge in the silencing of dissenting voices.


The country has been locked in election mode since the 2023 August general polls, as a result of controversial recalls of elected MPs from the main opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) by self-proclaimed secretary-general Sengezo Tshabangu.

Key observer missions including the European Union Observer Mission and the Southern Africa Electoral Observer Mission (SEOM) condemned the disputed elections,  saying the polls did not meet the the requirements of Zimbabwe’s constitution, Electoral Act and the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.

“There were also concerns about the impartiality of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission prior to and during the elections. The climate of threats, intimidation, repression, and violence against political opponents severely undermined the electoral environment,” reads HRW in its 2024 world report.

“The government’s failure to investigate and prosecute abuses primarily committed by ruling Zanu PF party supporters and state security forces entrenched the culture of impunity, especially ahead of the August 23 elections.”

On election night, government security forces raided the offices of the Election Resource Centre (ERC) and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn), arresting nearly 40 staff and volunteers and confiscating laptops, phones and other equipment.

“The raid and arrest prevented an independent, non-partisan verification of the official results as announced by the Zimbabwe Election Commission. A spokesman for the police told local media that the raid was because the two organisations were conducting an illegal parallel vote tabulation exercise,” HRW said.

When Mnangagwa was sworn in on 4 September, only presidents Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique and Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, out of the 16 expected Sadc heads of state, attended the ceremony.

Other Sadc members sent representatives to the inauguration, with the exception of Zambia.

HRW said the government has been further closing the civic space, with Zimbabwean authorities revoking the registration of 291 non-governmental and civil society organisations in January 2023 for “non-compliance with the provisions of Private Voluntary Organisations Act.”

“This was in concert with the government’s efforts to enact repressive laws in 2023, most notably an amendment to the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Act. In February, President Mnangagwa claimed that the PVO Amendment Bill was necessary to protect and defend the country’s sovereignty from destabilising foreign interests,” said the HRW report.
Last year, experts from the United Nations called on Mnangagwa not to sign the Bill into law, stating that “the restrictions contained therein will have a chilling effect on civil society organisations, particularly dissenting voices”.

However, while the PVO Bill lapsed upon dissolution of the 9th Parliament, Mnangagwa had sent the Bill back upon the commencement of the 10th Parliament with reservations for reconsideration, without clear reasons.

On 14 July, Mnangagwa also signed into law the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Amendment Bill of 2022, commonly referred to as the “Patriotic Bill”, seen as a grave threat to freedoms of association and expression.

The law empowers the National Prosecuting Authority to prosecute anyone it considers to be undermining the country or using false statements to paint a negative picture of the country to foreign governments.

“A leading non-governmental organisation, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, argued that the provisions of the law were ‘vague, lack certainty, are imprecise, and are thus prone to abuse by law enforcement [and] could be interpreted broadly and subjectively to criminalise the legitimate conduct of those asserting their freedom of expression’.”

There was also a continuation of arbitrary arrests and weaponisation of the law against government critics, denying those arrested the presumption of innocence, the right to bail, and access to a fair trial, HRW said.

Opposition politicians were jailed, with Job Sikhala spending 595 days in pre-trial detention at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison following his arrest in June 2022 while representing slain CCC activist Moreblessing Ali. Sikhala has been reconvicted for publishing falsehoods.

On 28 April, Jacob Ngarivhume (pictured), leader of the opposition Transform Zimbabwe, was sentenced to four years in prison for inciting public violence over a 2020 protest call he posted on X, before his release in December.

Opposition MP Joana Mamombe and activists Netsai Marova and Cecillia Chimbiri were abducted, tortured and sexually assaulted on 13 May 2020, but were later charged for staging their kidnapping, before their acquittal in July 2023.

“In 2023, there was a pattern of arrests, charges, and criminal proceedings that amount to attacks on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, without any accountability,” HRW said.

“On January 14, police arrested, detained, and beat with batons Costa Machingauta (the opposition CCC MP for Budiriro, Harare) and 25 others. They were charged with participating in an illegal gathering and disturbing public peace in what police said was an illegal meeting at the MP’s house in Harare.”

“On March 4, police shut down the show of a popular musician, Wallace Chirumiko. Popularly known as ‘Winky D,’ the reggae-dancehall artiste had released an album that contained lyrics against social and political injustice, corruption, and the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe.”

The government has been under fire for lack of gender inclusion in social and political activities.

“A troubling feature of the election was the low number of female candidates, and the number of women in Parliament has been declining. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights expressed concerns about violence against women voters and candidates ahead of the last election,” reads the report.

“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have faced police harassment and sexual and physical assaults. In September, a man committed suicide in fear of police arrest for sodomy. The Criminal Law Act makes acts of ‘sodomy’ punishable with a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment. Zimbabwe’s laws prohibit same-sex marriage.”

HRW said there has been a decrease in land rights, with the government designating mining and commercial projects without adequate consultation. In July, a court ordered Labenmon Investments, a Chinese mining company, not to prospect or conduct exploration or any form of mining activity in four villages in Mashonaland East province without following due process of the law. 

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights represented communities in Mutoko, Mashonaland East province, against another Chinese mining company, Zim Win Mining (Private) Limited, which had commenced lithium mineral exploration activities in the area, resulting in the displacement of families, damage to land and destruction of livelihoods.

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