Zimbabwe’s lawyers march to demand justice for jailed protesters

FAN Editor
Zimbabwean lawyers carry placards as they march to demand justice for people detained in jail and others facing fast-track trials following recent protests in Harare
Zimbabwean lawyers carry placards as they march to demand justice for people detained in jail and others facing fast-track trials following recent protests in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

January 29, 2019

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Hundreds of Zimbabwean lawyers marched on Tuesday to demand justice for people detained in jail and others facing fast-track trials after violent protests this month led to mass arrests and a brutal security crackdown.

Police say more than 1,000 people have been arrested since Jan. 14, when a three-day stay-at-home strike called after President Emmerson Mnangagwa raised fuel prices led to street violence and looting. Those charged have been denied bail in a pattern lawyers say is a violation of their rights.

Zimbabwe’s High Court on Tuesday ordered the release on bail of activist pastor Evan Mawarire, who was detained at a maximum security prison in Harare on subversion charges after he tweeted his support for the strike.

Mawarire, who came to prominence as a critic of former leader Robert Mugabe, faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted.

The judge ordered Mawarire to deposit $2,000 with the court, report to police three times a week and surrender the title deed to his property as part of bail conditions.

The judge had earlier heard bail applications from two leaders of the union that organized the Jan. 14-16 strike.

Pressure group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human rights (ZLHR) says the arrests and detentions, most for public order offences, have exceeded the legal system’s capacity. Lawyers have been unable to extend representation to several hundred detainees including children.

Close to 50 people have been acquitted on charges of public violence while an equal number have been convicted and sentenced to as much as seven years, ZLHR said, adding those found guilty did not have lawyers.

Mnangagwa last week pledged to investigate the security crackdown, during which residents and other witnesses say police and soldiers conducted night-time raids on many homes and forcibly removed and beat alleged protesters.

On Monday, Mnangagwa said he had ordered the arrest of a soldier and police officer filmed assaulting a man in handcuffs.

The opposition has cast doubt on the president’s promises, saying no one has yet been brought to account for the death of six people shot by the military after post-election violence last August.

Rights groups say at least 12 people were killed during this month’s unrest. Police put the figure at three.

The country is also mired in economic crisis, and concerns are growing that frustration over that could lead to more unrest after public workers on Monday issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the government to meet their pay demands or face a strike.

‘JUSTICE NOT POLITICS’

On Tuesday, some of the lawyers marching through Harare carried placards emblazoned with the words: “Systemic beatings, detentions silence the rule of law” while another sign read “#No to judicial capture, #justice not politics; #no to militarization of magistracy”.

They walked from the Law Society of Zimbabwe offices to the Constitutional Court, where they presented a petition while riot police looked on.

The crackdown in Zimbabwe has alarmed rights groups who fear a return to the authoritarianism that characterized much of the Mugabe era.

The government has said the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is behind the demonstrations, something its leader Nelson Chamisa denied.

Zimbabwe was witnessing “an escalation, not only of Mugabe-type of terror but … something that will make Mugabe look like a baby in terms of terrorism,” Chamisa told reporters.

A judge in the southern town of Masvingo freed an MDC lawmaker on bail while three more remain in detention.

(Editing by James Macharia and Janet Lawrence)

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