UNITED States Ambassador Bruce Wharton has accused the police of engaging “in a clear pattern of harassment through arbitrary detentions” but urged rights groups to use “established means” to protest instead of resorting to “illegal activities.”
Writing on his Facebook wall Friday, President Barack Obama’s man in Harare warned that selective policing and public defiance of laws seen as “unjust and unfair” by sections of the society could lead the country into a “counterproductive cycle of instability”.
“Since November, we have seen elements of the Zimbabwe Republic Police engage in a clear pattern of harassment through arbitrary detentions, politically-motivated searches, and arrests on spurious charges against individuals and entities that are operating within the law,” Wharton said.
“At the same time, the distorted political environment of the past decade has created an environment in which sectors of society reject what they see as unjust and unfair laws and therefore act intentionally in violation of the law. Together, these two dynamics threaten to trap Zimbabwe in a counterproductive cycle of instability.”
Wharton’s remarks followed allegations police had tear-gassed and baton-charged scores of women activists marching for peace in Bulawayo on Friday.
Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) leader Jenni Williams said her group marched to government buildings in the city to peacefully voice concerns about women's rights in the proposed new constitution, which will be voted on in a national referendum.
She said they were however, dispersed with "indiscriminate use of force" by the police adding that passers-by and crying children had to flee the tear gas fired by police.
Wharton said he was concerned about the police response to the demonstration.
“As President Obama’s representative here, I am deeply concerned about the pattern of harassment of civil society organizations and the use of violence against civilians by elements of the Zimbabwe Republic Police – such as occurred against protestors from Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) yesterday in Bulawayo,” he said.
Rights groups also condemned the police response adding it cast doubt on the country's ability to hold credible constitutional referendum and fresh elections.
"Zimbabwe is entering a critical period in its democratization process and these blatant attempts to silence and intimidate critics must end," said Amnesty's Southern Africa director Noel Kututwa.
But Wharton said rights groups should consider using “established means” to change laws they are not happy with instead of engaging in “illegal” activities.
“When citizens disagree with the laws of their communities, they should first work to change them through established means, not by engaging in illegal actions to impose their own way,” he said.
“Zimbabwe will be stronger when the full rights of citizens to gather and demonstrate peacefully are respected and protected, and when citizens are assured of and respect the responsibilities of a professional, non-partisan police force.”