‘We have jumped from the frying pan into the fire’ say Zimbambwe demonstrators

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Youth from the Movement for Democratic Change marching in Bulawayo on August 16

ALTHOUGH Zimbabwe’s main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), called off anti-government protests in the capital Harare at the last minute last Friday after failing to overturn a police ban, protesters who had already gathered in the city were violently dispersed by police and several were hurt.

The MDC said the ban exposed the ‘fascist’ government’s true colours.

The demonstration was called in protest at the government’s handling of the economy, but police claimed they had evidence it could turn violent.

Supporters had already gathered, singing songs and condemning police brutality, when police quickly moved in to disperse them, firing tear gas.

Officers beat protesters with batons as they chased them from the streets, leaving several people lying on the ground motionless or receiving medical attention.

‘This is worse than during colonial times, one man said. ‘We aren’t armed but the police just beat us while we were sitting on the street.’

Police announced they were banning the protests on Thursday evening and the MDC applied to the High Court to overturn the order, but it was upheld by a judge on Friday morning.

Speaking to journalists after the court decision, MDC deputy leader Tendai Biti said the party would not appeal, but added that the ban had exposed the government’s ‘true colours’.

‘The constitution guarantees the right to demonstration … yet this fascist regime has denied and proscribed this right to the people of Zimbabwe,’ he said.

‘We have jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the coup … We don’t accept the conduct of this regime, the conduct of (President Emmerson) Mnangagwa.’

Biti said that protests planned for next week in other cities would still go ahead.

The demonstrations were called to protest at Zimbabwe’s worsening economic situation. Power cuts last for up to 18 hours a day and inflation is on the rise.

‘Life in Zimbabwe today is worse than it was under former president Robert Mugabe,’ MDC politician Fadzayi Mahere said.

‘People are marching against the continued hardship that they face. The cost of living has soared exponentially. We’re back into hyperinflation.’

She said that democratic freedoms are also under threat.

Last week, at least six civil society and opposition members were allegedly abducted and tortured.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum says the victims were accused of mobilising people to demonstrate.

Human rights groups blame state agents for their disappearance, but the authorities have denied their involvement.

The protests would have been the first since January, when rallies against increases in the price of fuel ended in deadly clashes with troops, in which 12 people were killed.

The worsening economy has fuelled wider grievances with the governing Zanu-PF party under Mnangagwa.

The current president swept to power in November 2017 after long-time leader Robert Mugabe was ousted in a military coup.

Mnangagwa, a long-time ally of Mugabe, won an election in July 2018 on a platform of democratic reforms and economic recovery after years of decline.

But the mood of hope and change has diminished as Zimbabwe’s economy has faltered.

Inflation is at a 10-year high, shrinking Zimbabweans’ salaries and pensions.

Shortages of fuel, power and water are widespread, and the price of bread has increased five-fold since April.

There have been fears, that protests in Harare and other major cities would lead to another police crackdown akin to January’s.

The UN Human Rights office condemned last Friday’s riot police actions in Harare and is calling for an investigation into excessive use of force by security forces.

UN Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville says there are better ways to deal with the population’s legitimate grievances on the economic situation in the country than by cracking down on peaceful protestors.

‘We are deeply concerned by the socio-economic crisis that continues to unfold in Zimbabwe.

‘While acknowledging efforts made by the government, the international community and the UN in Zimbabwe to mitigate the effects of the crisis and reform process, the dire economic situation is now impacting negatively on the realisation of economic and social rights of millions of Zimbabweans,’ Colville said.

Zimbabwean workers are struggling with hyperinflation, which has sent prices soaring for essential commodities such as fuel, food, transportation and health care.

Compounding the problems is the ongoing impact of cyclone Idai that hit Zimbabwe in March and then a severe drought.

The United Nations says one third of Zimbabwe’s population of 16 million people is in need of humanitarian aid.

The fallout in terms of casualties and possible arrests from last Friday’s protests is not yet clear.  But Colville said his office has received disturbing reports of human rights violations over the past few months.

‘There are, as I said, reports coming through right now of very recent abductions, beatings and so on of activists or human rights defenders.

‘We have not had a chance to verify those and look in detail apart from the two that occurred a few days ago,’ Colville said. ‘So, it is clearly a very tense situation.’

Colville said state authorities have a duty to ensure people’s rights to freedom of expression and to protect the right to peaceful assembly.

The UN human rights office is urging the government to engage in a national dialogue to ensure that civil society in all its guises can carry out its activities without fear of intimidation or reprisals for its work.

Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Southern Africa, said on Friday: ‘The scenes in Harare today demonstrate just how far the authorities will go to repress dissent.

‘Baton-wielding police unleashed a brutal assault on protesters, who had gathered to protest the socio-economic conditions which are causing suffering to so many in Zimbabwe.

‘The scenes in Harare today demonstrate just how far the authorities will go to repress dissent.

‘Baton-wielding police unleashed a brutal assault on protesters, who had gathered to protest the socio-economic conditions which are causing suffering to so many in Zimbabwe.

‘The Zimbabwean authorities should know that the world is watching. The authorities must end the escalating crackdown on dissent and respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

‘There must be full accountability for these attacks, which left scores of people injured and shows the government’s contempt for human rights.

‘We are calling on the authorities to launch a prompt, impartial and effective investigation into today’s attacks.

‘They must also allow opposition protests to go ahead, and stop using violence as a tool of harassment and intimidation and to silence critical voices.

‘The repression of peaceful dissent will not solve the economic problems which brought protestors to the streets in the first place.’

Southern African Development Community nations will collectively voice their disapproval of the sanctions on Oct. 25, and ask the international community to support an economic recovery in Zimbabwe, the SADC said in a statement after a meeting in the Tanzanian commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was among heads of state that joined Tanzania’s leader, John Magufuli, for the summit.

Zimbabwe is still subject to US sanctions that date back to the reign of former President Robert Mugabe who was ousted in late 2017 after 38 years in power.

The country is already reeling from annual inflation that hit 176% in June, the highest globally after Venezuela.

Authorities won’t release annual figures for six months until February, although persistent shortages of fuel and bread suggest inflation hasn’t waned.