Activists and lawyers fear brutal crackdown could last months

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By The Guardian UK

HARARE: Activists and lawyers in Zimbabwe fear that the brutal crackdown by security forces will continue “for the foreseeable future” as the authorities seek to crush all possible opposition to the ruling Zanu-PF party.

Hundreds of activists and opposition officials remain in hiding this weekend after almost two weeks of arbitrary arrests, beatings, rapes and abductions by police and soldiers.

Demonstrators took to the streets on 14 January and unions called a strike when the government more than doubled the price of petrol and diesel. The security forces responded violently. So far 12 people have been killed, many more injured and between 700 and 1,500 detained.

“This is not going to be over quickly. We have seen that the state has just notched up the level of oppression, and that is the level it is going to be operating at for the foreseeable future,” said Douglas Coltart, a human rights lawyer in Harare.

The abuses are the worst seen in Zimbabwe for at least a decade and have dashed any remaining hopes that the ousting of the autocratic ruler Robert Mugabe in November 2017 would lead to significant political reform. One veteran activist described the crackdown as likely to become “the new normal”.

“This is going to go on for weeks, months, however long it takes for the authorities to feel sure they have made certain that there’s no real opposition left,” the activist, who requested anonymity, said.

Around 20 arrests were reported on Friday and Saturday across the country, as well as scattered incidents of assault. Police appeared to be targeting poor vendors and taxi drivers. Hundreds of opposition activists are in hiding or have fled overseas.

“They are not just trying to arrest me, they are trying to kill me,” said Ishmael Kawzani, a former independent candidate in local elections, who has fled from his home in Kuwadzana, a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Harare, the capital, where the army has been searching for opposition supporters.

Jacob Mafume, a spokesperson for the Movement for Democratic Change, said five MPs, 10 councillors and more than 200 members of the party had been detained. At least six have been charged with subversion – an unprecedented number – and face prison sentences of up to 20 years. They include four trade union officials, an MP and a well-known social media activist.

“There is a kind of messaging here. They are saying: ‘We can go for your leaders, so we can go for anyone.’ They are saying to Zimbabweans, ‘We don’t care who you are’,” said Alec Muchadehama, a lawyer representing Peter Mutasa, a senior trade union leader who is among those charged.

There are also concerns about mass trials of up to 60 men and women accused of participating in riots and looting.

It now appears very unlikely that Emmerson Mnangagwa, who succeeded Mugabe and won contested elections last year, will achieve his stated aim of ending Zimbabwe’s pariah status to unlock the massive financial aid necessary to avert total economic collapse. This suggests that basic commodities such as food, fuel and medicine will remain both scarce and increasingly expensive, making further protests likely.

Mnangagwa cut short a trip to Europe and Asia to return to deal with the unrest and said he would talk to opposition groups. But the authorities have defended the crackdown as a necessary measure to restore order.

Labour activists and unions are considering further protests in the coming weeks. Teachers have been among the most vocal advocates of further direct action to force concessions from the government over pay and conditions. However, the detention of several leaders of teachers’ unions has made mobilisation harder, officials said.

On Friday the Apex Council, an umbrella body for civil service unions, said it would not accept the latest government offers of increased allowances and would consider industrial action.