Amnesty International has called on the Zimbabwean government to put in place an impartial and independent police oversight body. The organization said on Wednesday that the body should be publicly accessible to investigate all complaints of human rights violations by members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP).
The call follows the ruling by a Harare magistrate on Tuesday that ordered the Zimbabwean government to investigate alleged assault of four women human rights activists by police while in custody. The four women from the activist organization Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) were arbitrarily arrested by police on 18 June after engaging in a peaceful demonstration to commemorate World Refugee Day.
"While the court’s decision is welcome, the Zimbabwean authorities must now get to the bottom of these allegations and bring those responsible to account," said Irene Khan Amnesty International’s Secretary General who was in Harare at the time of the women’s arrest.
"Over the years thousands of political and human rights activists in Zimbabwe have been arbitrary arrested, unlawfully detained, ill-treatment and even tortured while in police custody, but no-one has been held accountable."
The four women were arrested about 50 metres outside a hotel in Harare where Amnesty International’s Secretary General was holding a press conference on 18 June. Police assaulted the activists and are reported to have accused them of embarrassing the government in front of international visitors.
Prominent human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, who is representing the activists, told the court that the women were also denied access to treatment for their injuries as a punishment for their activism. The State was ordered to present its report on the women’s allegations by 13 July.
"This is one of the many cases documented by Amnesty International that shows Zimbabwean police’s poor record of policing peaceful demonstrations and ill-treatment of perceived political opponents while in custody," said Irene Khan. “The Zimbabwean authorities should set up an independent complaints body accessible to the public which investigates all allegations against the police.
"We do not trust that police are capable of investigating themselves. Lack of accountability with the ZRP appears to be more of an institutional culture as opposed to lack of a legal framework or knowledge of how to bring those responsible to book. The ZRP has been instrumental in silencing government critics since 2000 and continues to do so with total impunity."
Amnesty International also voiced concern about the delay in implementing reforms of the police five months since the creation of an Inclusive Government. Article 12.1(b) of the Global Political Agreement commits the new government to “undertake training programmes, workshops and meetings for the police and other enforcement agencies directed at the appreciation of the right of freedom of assembly and association and the proper interpretation, understanding and application of the provisions of security legislation."
"Despite the political agreement, police continue to categorize as criminal all legitimate activities of human rights defenders," said Irene Khan.
Amnesty International has specifically called for urgent reforms of the Law and Order Section of the Criminal Investigations Department of the ZRP and the anti-riot police which have been identified by victims as the most notorious for using torture, excessive force, arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention as tools of repression against perceived political opponents since 2000.
Irene Khan, Amnesty International's Secretary General, led a high level mission to Zimbabwe from 13 to 18 June 2008. She met with senior government officials including Vice President Joice Mujuru and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Among other senior government ministers, Ms Khan also met with the co-Ministers of Home Affairs Hon Kembo Mohadi and Hon Giles Mutsekwa and discussed the urgent need for police reforms.
Since 2000, Amnesty International has documented numerous cases involving thousands of human rights activists who were victims of arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, use of excessive force and torture while in police custody. In addition, detainees have been denied bail, medical care, water, food and access to lawyers and family as a form of punishment for their activism.