The Zimbabwe Republic Police arrested six Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC) officials on Friday, 5 June, after they allegedly attempted to enter their party headquarters, Morgan Richard Tsvangirai House (MRT House, formerly Harvest House). The arrested MDC officials are Vice President Tendai Biti, Lynette Karenyi-Kore, Vongai Tome, Gladys Hlatshwayo, Louis Chimhini and Lovemore Chonoputsa. The offices at MRT House have been occupied by an MDC breakaway group who are involved in a legal battle over party leadership. In May, the Zimbabwe Constitutional Court ruled in favour of an MDC splinter faction led by former Vice President Thokozani Khupe and occupancy of the MRT House offices was awarded to them. The MDC Alliance sought the assistance of the police to eject members of the breakaway faction who had occupied MRT House. They were instead arrested, detained and charged by the police.
According to their lawyers, the six arrested persons were released on bail on Saturday 6 June after being charged with criminal nuisance and breaching regulations to curb the Covid-19 virus. According to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, the six were ordered to pay a fine. The state’s use of arbitrary and vague offences such as criminal nuisance is a strong indication that the arrests are aimed at persecution and not based on any criminal conduct.
This follows the arrest of well-respected senior Zimbabwean lawyer, Thabani Mpofu earlier in the week on dubious grounds. Four more lawyers, Tapiwa Makanza, Lawman Chimuriwo, Joshua Chirambwe and Dumisani Dube were subsequently arrested for their roles in the constitutional challenge to the appointment of the Prosecutor General.
Over the last year we have observed an escalation of security force conduct and involvement in extrajudicial killings, rapes, and abductions of numerous dissidents. Zimbabwe is failing to implement political and economic reforms while blaming external factors and deflecting from their appalling human rights record. The COVID-19 crisis and associated regulations have been used as an opportunistic means to silence critics and stifle protest. Governments must ensure that when enforcing laws and developing measures aimed at curbing the virus, they act lawfully and do not subject citizens to abuse and degradation. In many countries, a vast array of regulations has been passed in a short space of time and the criminal sanctions imposed through these regulations are significant. Accessible and understandable information about these laws are critical – both for law enforcement officials who enforce the laws, and for broader society who is expected to abide by them. It is important that we protect the separation of powers between the executive, parliament, and judiciary, to ensure rights and justice for all during this crisis.
We reiterate our reminder to the Zimbabwean authorities of the United Nation’s Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers and draw their attention to the following provisions:
Guarantees for the functioning of lawyers
Governments shall ensure that lawyers:
- Are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference;
- Shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.
- Where the security of lawyers is threatened as a result of discharging their functions, they shall be adequately safeguarded by the authorities.
- Lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions.
- Lawyers shall enjoy civil and penal immunity for relevant statements made in good faith in written or oral pleadings or in their professional appearances before a court, tribunal or other legal or administrative authority.
It is distressing that we are seeing a rise in the intimidation, threats and reprisals against both lawyers and members of the main opposition in Zimbabwe. As part of the Southern African pro-democracy community, we continue to monitor these developments closely.