The authorities used COVID-19 regulations to justify severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. They deployed security forces to abduct, assault and torture perceived critics, and opposition members and leaders. Police and security agents killed at least 10 people. Women were denied access to essential maternal health care, and violence against women and girls was widespread.
In January, a constitutional amendment was published in the official gazette giving the President powers to hand-pick judges to higher courts and weakening Parliament’s oversight of financial agreements entered into by the government.
On 30 March, the government introduced measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, imposing punitive movement restrictions, initially for three weeks but periodically extending throughout the year. Information about lockdown rules was unclear, and their implementation appeared to be arbitrary. On 21 July, a national curfew between 6pm and 6am was imposed.
The pandemic exacerbated the economic crisis and the authorities were unable to provide social security to vulnerable people. According to the UN, 7 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance and 4.3 million people were severely food insecure.
In July, opposition members called on people to participate in the nationwide “July 31” protests against alleged state corruption, economic hardship, and to demand the President’s resignation. The country remained in political turmoil: in August, the South African government appointed two special envoys to visit Zimbabwe and identify possible resolutions to ongoing violence by security forces against the population.
Security forces frequently used excessive force to prevent or crackdown on peaceful protests and to impose lockdown restrictions, killing at least 10 people. Security forces also arbitrarily arrested and detained protesters and others in the context of enforcing COVID-19 measures. In the first four months of lockdown, 116,000 people were arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations. Many were subjected to violence, including a significant number of women. Two sisters, Nokuthula and Ntombizodwa Mpofu, were severely beaten by police on 16 April in Bulawayo when they went out during curfew to buy food for their children.
A joint team comprised of agents of the police, military, the Central Intelligence Organisation, and the Office of the President, known as the “Ferret Team”, terrorized government critics, opposition leaders and activists, and their family members. Many, including several members of the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance (MDC-A), were abducted from police custody, tortured and dumped far from their homes.
In May, Joana Mamombe, a politician, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova were arrested at a police roadblock in the capital, Harare, while they were leading a demonstration against inadequate protection for the poor. They were abducted the same day from Harare Central Police Station by a group of men believed to be from the Ferret Team, who physically and sexually assaulted them and dumped them 87km from their homes in Harare three days later. In June, the State charged the women with faking their abductions and “tarnishing the country’s image”. On 31 July, they were re-arrested at a checkpoint. While they were being held, a soldier whipped Cecilia Chimbiri for allegedly insulting him. In December, in the case relating to the charges connected to their abduction in May, the Harare Regional Magistrate ordered that Joana Mamombe be tried separately from Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova on grounds that she had been declared unfit to stand trial. An application by their lawyers for this order to be reviewed was pending at the end of the year.
In the days running up to the July 31 protests, security forces raided the homes of those suspected of supporting the initiative, in some cases vandalizing property.
On 30 July, Tawanda Muchehiwa was arrested by police in a shop in Bulawayo. On the way to the police station, the officers handed him over to the Ferret Team, who tortured him to reveal the whereabouts of his uncle, Mduduzi Mathuthu, the editor of online newspaper ZimLive.com. They released him far from his home four days later.
The same day, security forces raided Mduduzi Mathuthu’s home, and, when they failed to find him, took away his sister and two of his nephews who were later released after the Media Institute of Southern Africa intervened.
The violence continued after July, and on 7 August, four unidentified men abducted Noxolo Maphosa in the street. She was sexually assaulted to force her to reveal the whereabouts of her uncle, Josphat Ngulube, an MDC-A member who had been accused of distributing face masks bearing the slogan “#ZANUPFMustGo” (referring to the ruling party).
On 12 August, Tamuka Denhere, another member of the MDC-A, was taken from his home in Gweru city by unidentified men and tortured over several hours. They then handed him over to Harare Central Police Station. Police also arrested his wife after she reported his abduction.
Police and state security agents unlawfully killed at least 10 people. No meaningful investigations were carried out into these crimes.
On 15 March, police went to the home of Bhekani Moyo in Silobela village, in connection with assault allegations, and shot him dead. On 30 March, Levison Moyo was beaten by police in Bulawayo for allegedly violating lockdown restrictions and died four days later from a brain haemorrhage. In May, police, travelling in an unmarked vehicle, shot and killed Paul Munakopa in Hillside, Bulawayo.
At least two opposition activists were unlawfully killed. In July, Mazwi Ndlovu, from Bulilima, was killed by agents suspected to be affiliated with ZANU-PF after he raised concerns about the way food was distributed to those in need. A man suspected of killing him was later arrested but released without appearing in court or applying for bail. Also in July, state security agents in Hurungwe abducted, murdered and dumped the naked body of Lavender Chiwaya, an MDC-A councillor, near his home.
The authorities used COVID-19 restrictions as a pretext to limit civic space and restrict human rights. Section 14 of Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020 on Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) Regulations, 2020 criminalized the “spreading of false news” about COVID-19 and imposed a 20-year prison sentence and/or a hefty fine. Lovemore Zvokusekwa, from Chitungwiza, a town on the outskirts of Harare, was arrested in April, and accused of circulating a fabricated press statement purporting to be from the President, announcing a lockdown extension. Later that month, the President said he should receive a 20-year prison sentence as an “example” to others. On 30 April, he was released from detention on remand although he faced trial pending possible further investigations by the prosecution. The authorities used further provisions which criminalized people solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, including “undermining the authority of the President” or “insulting” him, to discourage criticism on social media.
In March, the Commander of the Zimbabwe National Army said that social media was proving a threat to national security and that the military would put private electronic communications under surveillance to “guard against subversion”. Christian Rambu was arrested in Chipinge town in April for distributing a WhatsApp message accusing the President of incompetence. Rujeko Hither Mpambwa, from Kariba, was arrested in August for criticizing on social media the President’s address to the nation.
Police and military officers used the COVID-19 restrictions as a pretext to justify the harassment and intimidation of journalists and other media workers, at least 25 of whom were assaulted and arbitrarily arrested and detained while working, or on their way to and from work. They were accused of violating lockdown restrictions, disorderly conduct or using expired accreditation documents which, under the COVID-19 regulations, should have been considered valid during lockdown. Journalists were frequently ordered to delete their videos or photographs without a valid reason.
The authorities used Section 14 of Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020 on Public Health to prohibit demonstrations during lockdown.
Between March and August, security forces locked down roads to Harare’s central business district to prevent protests in support of prominent activists facing trial.
In townships in Harare, officers robbed some people at gunpoint, demanded bribes or severely beat them for breaking lockdown regulations.
Dozens of people were arrested for organizing or participating in peaceful demonstrations, including activists Namatai Kwekweza and Vongai Zimudzi, arrested in June for demonstrating against constitutional amendments.
In July, at least 17 nurses were prosecuted for violating lockdown regulations after they protested against low wages and poor working conditions at the Sally Mugabe Central Hospital in Harare. They were acquitted of all charges.
In the same month, the authorities launched a brutal crackdown on opposition leaders involved in organizing the July 31 protests (see above, Excessive use of force) and on trade unionists who had called for strike action. Throughout July, security forces arrested at least 60 people.
On 12 July, unidentified men tried to abduct the brother and nephew of Peter Mutasa – the leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions – from his home. On 16 July, a group of men broke into the house of Obert Masaraure, President of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ), in the early hours, taking his wife into custody for several hours to try to force her to reveal his whereabouts. Three days earlier ARTUZ had organized a demonstration to protest about low wages.
An overnight curfew was imposed on 21 July, ostensibly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection, but which critics interpreted as a clampdown on protests. On 27 July, a ZANU-PF spokesperson called on supporters to use all necessary means to defend themselves ahead of the nationwide July 31 demonstrations. When the protests went ahead, police arrested at least 20 people, who were charged with various offences including “public nuisance”, “intention to incite public violence”, and breaking COVID-19 regulations. They were later released on bail. On 4 August, the President said the protest supporters were “bad apples” who would be “flushed out”.
Opposition and civil society members, activists and lawyers accused the authorities of using the judicial system to harass and penalize opponents or perceived critics of the government.
Statutory instruments were used to suspend constitutional rights. For example, COVID-19 restrictions led to courts closing early, ostensibly to allow staff to get home before the curfew. Consequently, hearings were repeatedly adjourned, and critics and activists were unable to get bail and were kept in prolonged pre-trial detention. Jacob Ngarivhume, a politician, who was arrested in connection with the July 31 protests, and Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist who was arrested for exposing allegations of corruption among government officials, spent around six weeks in pre-trial detention, having been denied bail three times. Godfrey Kurauone, an MDC-A councillor in Masvingo, spent over five weeks in jail for “insulting” the President.
At least 10 lawyers were harassed in connection with cases they represented, some of them facing prosecution on trumped-up charges. In June, Thabani Mpofu was arrested and bailed, on allegations of obstructing justice by filing an affidavit from a fictitious person in a case which challenged the appointment of the Prosecutor General. The author of the affidavit later presented himself to the police, but the case against the Thabani Mpofu continued at the end of the year.
In July, the Chief Justice directed that all court judgements be “approved” by the head of the court or division before being handed down. The directive was withdrawn following strong objections from lawyers and civil society activists.
In August, a magistrate barred Beatrice Mtetwa, a human rights lawyer, from representing her client and recommended that her licence be revoked after she was falsely accused of running a Facebook page which criticized the justice system.
Between March and June, a total of 106 maternal deaths were recorded, largely as a result of movement restrictions which prevented many pregnant women from accessing services. In July, a woman from Chitungwiza was forced to pay a bribe to get through a police roadblock to reach hospital when she was in labour.
The government did not release information on the number of health workers who had tested positive for COVID-19 until August, when they announced there were more than 480 cases. In September, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported a decrease in access to essential health care facilities as a consequence of COVID-19 infection among health workers and a lack of PPE, among other things. Calls from front-line health workers for adequate PPE and essential drugs went unheeded, and in April the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights took a case to the High Court which ordered the government to, among other things, provide PPE to front-line health workers.
Within the first 11 days of lockdown, 764 cases of violence against women and girls were recorded, rising to 2,768 by mid-June. The authorities failed to prioritize services to protect women and girls from such attacks. Meanwhile, victims were denied prompt access to justice.