CSOs & Opposition bear the brunt of intensified crackdown on Association & Assembly

CSOs & Opposition bear the brunt of intensified crackdown on Association & Assembly

Introduction

As Zimbabwe gears up for general elections in July 2023, civic space is under severe attack as incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, who has been in power since a November 2017 military intervention, and a subsequent disputed 2018 election, seeks to defend his presidency.

Numerous cases have been reported about increasing restrictions targeting civil society ahead of the elections. Restrictive amendments to CSO law, public vilification of CSOs and foreign diplomatic missions, raids on CSO activities and suspension of CSO registration have become commonplace. Pro-democracy activists and members of opposition political parties have also come under increasing repression with arbitrary restrictions to the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Association

New amendments cause heightened concern for future of CSO sector

A new Bill, the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, if passed, will see CSOs subjected to tighter restrictions and may lead to the undue targeting and/or closure of some prominent CSOs such as Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and many others not previously required to register under the PVO Act. The Bill seeks, amongst other things, to provide the government with unfettered discretionary power to overregulate and interfere in non-government organisations’ governance and operations. For example, the provisions of the Bill provide the government with unchecked power to designate any PVO as “high risk” or “vulnerable” to terrorism abuse, thereby allowing them to revoke a PVO’s registration and remove or replace its leadership. The Bill also seeks to include a provision which will prevent PVOs from supporting or opposing any political party or candidate in a presidential, parliamentary, or local government election.

The bill represents one of the greatest threats to freedom of association in Zimbabwe and is an attempt by the authorities to target civil society groups that have often raised concerns about violence related to elections. Even before the passing of the Bill into law however, in March 2022, registration agencies reported that they had suspended the registration of trusts and PVOs until further notice, citing ‘orders from above’, and raising fears that the government had unlawfully begun implementing the Bill before its confirmation into law, in what seems to be a bid to shut out CSOs from participation in the democratic space, ahead of the general elections.

Related to the above developments, the government also embarked on an intimidation and vilification campaign against civil society and diplomatic missions which have been supporting civil society to call for review of the Bill. On 26th March 2022, President Mnangagwa issued a stern warning to civil society actors whom he claimed are “overstepping their boundaries” by interfering in the political affairs of the country. According to the President, many civil society organisations in Zimbabwe have been working closely with opposition political parties and Western embassies with the aim of encouraging a regime change. He warned civil society actors that they would be kicked out of the country for “destabilising the prevailing peace, unity and harmony through dabbling in politics” if they continue to act beyond their mandate. Similarly, on 17th July 2022, the president stated that he would deal with the “gross interference by rogue foreign missions in domestic matters including politics and the country’s legislative agenda”, and accused them of interfering with the country’s electoral processes.

Propaganda by state-controlled media follows CSO backlash at new amendments

In responding to vocal CSO concerns about the PVO amendment Bill, state-controlled media outlets embarked on a propaganda and smear campaign agenda, painting civil society as conduits of foreign agents and criminal activities, amongst other narratives. On 22nd May 2022, the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper published an article alleging that civil society under the umbrella ‘Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition’ were receiving money through the neighbouring countries of Botswana, South Africa and Zambia in order to undertake anti-government activities, intended to destabilise the country. The article further accused the CSO of organising xenophobic demonstrations against Chinese investments in Zimbabwe. Another article published on 24th May 2022 by state-owned paper The Herald attempts to whitewash the PVO amendment Bill by emphasizing that the bill only seeks to raise the administrative and financial standards of CSOs, in line with the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF), while conveniently leaving out the questionable timing of the Bill, and its negative impact on CSO participation in the country’s democratic space. A similar whitewashing approach was also taken by the Sunday Mail in a separate 22nd May 2022 Article which praised the Bill for aiming to ensure transparency, while emphasizing that opposition to the Bill is being led by foreign and vested groups who fund CSOs to undertake political activities that are against the country’s interest. Another Article published by The Herald on 28th April 2022 accuses non-profit organisations of receiving foreign funding which is used for criminal activities.

Increasing raids on CSO activities closing space for CSO participation

In the past few months, several cases of disruption of activities by CSOs, followed by arrest and detention of CSO staff have been reported, in what may appear to be deliberate efforts by government to prevent and shut out CSOs from participating in the democratic processes ahead of the upcoming elections.

On 26th May 2022, reports from a CIVICUS Monitor source indicated that members of the Central Intelligence Organisation stormed a women’s empowerment meeting organised by Transparency International Zimbabwe (TIZ) and Shamwari yeMwanasikana, for alleged failure to notify the President and Provincial Development Coordinator. Three CSO staff members were arrested and charged with convening an unlawful gathering in contravention of the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act. Two of them; Benevolence Taguta and Tracy Mutowekuziva were released that evening after intervention by ZLHR lawyers, while the third, Lisa Mataka, was released by the court the following day over a defective charge sheet which did not disclose an offence.

Similarly, on 29th June 2022, police officers separately raided several CSO meetings, arresting CSO staff members. In Bindura, officials stormed a meeting held by the Mash Central Youth School on Constitutionalism which was being held in a hotel. They confiscated the attendance registers and ordered everyone to write down their residential addresses, without giving a reason why they had stopped the meeting. Separately, on the same day, still in Bindura, riot police also raided a consultative meeting held by the Institute for Young Women Development (IYWD), arrested all participants and took them to the police station. The participants were later released, but three staff members of IYWD were charged with hosting a community meeting without a police clearance under the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act. The arrests were made despite the fact that consultative meetings do not fall under the category of public meetings requiring clearance under the Act.

Political candidate acquitted for putting up campaign posters at place of political rival

On 2nd June 2022, Magistrate Sharon Rafaka acquitted Leonard Makuya, an independent political candidate who contested in the municipal by-elections after he was accused of putting up campaign posters at a place which a political rival claimed to be the preserve of the ruling ZANU PF party. Makuya stood trialfor allegedly assaulting a ZANU PF party youth leader under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform).

Violence unleashed on opposition political party activists

On 16th October 2022, violence broke out in Matobo District as several CCC supporters were assaulted and manhandled by alleged supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF, during a community voter mobilisation exercise, ahead of a Matobo Council by-election scheduled for 22nd October 2022. The supporters sustained injuries, while the women supporters were indecently abused and violated, as they were forced to undress in public. Elephant Ncube, a CCC community organiser, was one of the victims of ZANU PF’s orgy of political violence, the thugs broke his arm and fractured his ribs. Reportedly, several vehicles and houses were damaged while some goods were stolen from a local shop and homestead.

Shortly following the incident which occurred in Matobo District, suspected ZANU-PF supporters continued to unleash violence on CCC supporters on 17th October 2022, after they were violently attacked, and sustained injuries, in the Insiza District of Matabeleland South Province. Their vehicles had windscreens smashed and their engines had sand poured into them, and some of their personal belongings were stolen.

Peaceful Assembly

Over 36 people arrested for participating in national prayers

On 10th June 2022, Zimbabwean authorities arrested Bishop Magaya, and more than 36 other people, while he was in the middle of leading prayers for the country.

According to eyewitnesses, the authorities assaulted congregants and took Bishop Magaya to Harare Central Police Station where he was only released later in the day, at around 5pm. Bishop Magaya announced his arrest on social media before his phone was taken away.

Although Bishop Magaya was later released on the same day, his congregants were still detained with no access to lawyers, and they were charged with “unlawful gathering”, this is according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. However, the charge was later changed to “disorderly conduct” and a few of the accused opted to pay for a fine, and be released.

Activists arrested on Unity Day

In December 2022, police arrested three activists in Bulawayo at a Unity Day memorial held to remember the victims of the Gukurahundi massacre. Thamsanqa Ncube, Melusi Nyathi and Samkeliso Tshuma were arrested on Unity Day as they called for national peace and sought to honour the victims of the Gukurahundi massacres. The three were charged with “participating in a public gathering” with the intent of promoting violence. They were later released on bail and ordered to return to court on 20th January 2023.

Police ban scheduled tree-planting event organised by Nelson Chamisa

On 12th December 2022, the police invoked the Maintenance of Peace & Order Act to ban a scheduled tree-planting event by leader of the main opposition political party, Nelson Chamisa in ward 4, Gutu, Masvingo. According to the notice submitted by the police, the event was banned on the basis that another political party had already notified them of its intention to hold a meeting in the same ward.