Zimbabwe - Trust Maanda

A human rights defender is a person who individually or in association with others fights, for the protection and promotion of internationally recognised human rights and who as result of his work - generally but not necessarily - suffers reprisals. It is usually bad governments that are guilty of human rights abuses and it is because of this bad governance that these governments do not tolerate criticism of their bad human rights record. Unlike in football where defenders are at the back of the field, human rights defenders are on the front line standing between the victim and the abuser. Consequently, they frequently suffer reprisals by governments who dislike criticism.. The abuse comes in different forms ranging from more evident to more subtle abuses.

In some cases defenders face physical assaults or threats of physical harm. For example, Arnold Tsunga, the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights was assaulted by members of the Zimbabwe National Army after going to rescue his clients who were being held incommunicado by soldiers during the presidential elections of 2002. He was held at gunpoint and his captors cocked their guns and threatened him. Dr Lovemore Madhuku, the Chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly; a non-governmental organisation advocating for a new and people-driven constitution was assaulted by the police and other state agents, and left for dead. He regained consciousness in hospital. To date, none of his assailants have been arrested or prosecuted.

Judges of the High and Supreme courts who were progressive in the upholding of human rights or who gave judgments against the state or its affiliates have been threatened and/or intimidated into resigning. The current perception is that most of the judges that were appointed in place of these judges are government supporters. The recent court decisions in cases with a political or human rights perspective support this assertion. For instance, defenders are falsely arrested and prosecuted, as was also the case with Dr Madhuku. He was arrested on several occasions, but has always been released without charge after the prosecution withdraws the charges or he is acquitted. Stanford Moyo and Wilbert Mapombere, respectively former President and Secretary of the Zimbabwe Law Society have also been arrested and tortured for speaking against human rights abuses, and released. In most vocal of defenders. Similarly, this discourages prospective defenders who fear the consequences. This psychological pressure was brought to bear on the former Chief Justice of Zimbabwe who was asked to resign and advised that if he chose to remain on the bench his safety could not be guaranteed. He resigned.

Defenders also face challenges on the legislative front. There are numerous legal provisions which forbid defenders from doing certain work. For example, it is an offence for a defender to provide information on electoral law or related issues unless he/she meets certain requirements. Even in cases where he/she meets such requirements, the education materials are read and approved by a governmental body. As defenders play a vital role in opening the democratic space through education, restrictions imposed by the law places significant obstacles for defenders and their work. The Public Order And Security Act (POSA )makes statements insulting the President an offence. As it is difficult not to criticise government policies without being accused of insulting the president, it is a dangerous situation for defenders who face imprisonment if found guilty. Although meetings of defenders are not defined as public meetings and regulated by POSA, it is difficult to hold a meeting without notifying the police who insist on being present. So there is always a threat of being spied on in the meetings because there is no privacy.

Some of the legislative threats come in the form of limiting the court’ jurisdiction in certain cases. This has the effect of barring defenders from approaching the courts to seek remedies on behalf of victims of abuse. The recent constitutional amendment prohibited the courts from dealing with any issues pertaining to compulsory land acquisition. Therefore, those who wish to contest compulsory land acquisition have no recourse to the law. If the task of courts is to defend then their role has been taken away. The recent constitutional amendment also poses a further challenge to defenders in that their travel from Zimbabwe may be barred by the state if the trip is deemed not to be in the interests of the nation. This provision is arbitrary and subject to wide interpretation. It is a method by which the government can bar defenders and political opponents from voicing their criticisms and dissent at international forums. Defenders who attempt to travel risk having their passports seized.

Another threat has been in the form of the NGO Bill which sought to outlaw NGOs unless they were registered. The registration process in the bill was so cumbersome that it would be almost impossible for any NGO which the government dislikes to register. Even after registering the state had given itself wide powers to revoke the registration. There was an outcry against the bill and the president did not sign it into law, but no one knows whether the bill will or will not be reintroduced.

I was threatened with physical harm after traveling with another lawyer to a place called Chimanimani to visit our clients who were reportedly being tortured at the local police station. When we arrived, the police officer in charge told us that we would not be given access to our clients as they were branded as terrorists as they were members of an opposition political party. When we tried to reason further with him a notorious member of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) appeared - Joseph Mwale, who has been credited with dousing and burning to death in 2001 of Morgan Tsvangirai, the bodyguard and driver of the President of the main opposition political party. He drove us out of the police station at gunpoint, while police looked on.

Another challenge is manifest in the attitudes of certain judicial officers, especially in cases where the state is the abuser of human rights. The judicial officers can be hostile and abuse their power by finding ways of placing defenders in contempt of court. In my experience representing victims in court, judicial officers have attempted to belittle and intimidate me. It can also be frustrating to witness a client being found guilty because of his political affiliation and in the absence of any evidence. Similarly, when a judgement is made in favour of a client, at the moment of enforcement, often the state refuses to comply with the order. For example, a court ruled in favour of Roy Bennett and ordered those who were unlawfully occupying his land to vacate it. The perpetrators were state agents and so the order was ignored.

The police can also place obstacles in the way of defenders carrying out their legitimate work. In several cases, police deny that clients are being held in custody, which means that I have to travel from one police post to another. Even when police admit that clients are being held in custody they often refuse acces to them. On several occasions, I have been forced to file a harbeas corpus. Detainees are often presented or released after an extended stay in police custody, which means that evidence of torture has often disappeared.