By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) – Hundreds of Zimbabwean lawyers marched on Tuesday to demand justice for people detained in jail and others facing fast-track trials after violent protests this month led to mass arrests and a brutal security crackdown.
Police say more than 1,000 people have been arrested since Jan. 14, when a three-day stay-at-home strike called after President Emmerson Mnangagwa raised fuel prices led to street violence and looting. Those charged have been denied bail in a pattern lawyers say is a violation of their rights.
Pressure group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human rights (ZLHR) says the arrests and detentions, most for public order offences, have exceeded the legal system’s capacity. Lawyers have been unable to extend representation to several hundred detainees including children.
Close to 50 people have been acquitted on charges of public violence while an equal number have been convicted and sentenced to as much as seven years, ZLHR said, adding that those found guilty did not have lawyers.
Mnangagwa last week pledged to investigate the security crackdown, during which residents and other witnesses say police and soldiers conducted night-time raids on many homes and forcibly removed and beat alleged protesters.
On Monday, Mnangagwa said he had ordered the arrest of a soldier and police officer filmed assaulting a man in handcuffs.
The opposition has, however, cast doubt on the president’s promises, saying no one has yet been brought to account for the death of six people shot by the military after post-election violence last August.
Rights groups say at least 12 people were killed during this month’s unrest while police put the figure at three.
The country is also mired in economic crisis, and concerns are growing that frustration over that could lead to more unrest after public workers on Monday issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the government to meet their pay demands or face a strike.
On Tuesday, some of the lawyers marching through Harare carried placards emblazoned with the words: “Systemic beatings, detentions silence the rule of law” while another sign read “#No to judicial capture, #justice not politics; #no to militarization of magistracy”.
They walked from the Law Society of Zimbabwe offices to the Constitutional Court, where they presented a petition while riot police looked on.
Zimbabwe’s High Court was set to make a ruling later on Tuesday on a bail application by activist pastor Evan Mawarire, detained at a maximum security prison in Harare on subversion charges after he tweeted his support for the stay-at-home strike.
Mawarire, who first came to prominence as a critic of former leader Robert Mugabe, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
The crackdown has alarmed rights groups who fear a return to the authoritarian regime that characterised much of the Mugabe era.
The government has alleged that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is behind the demonstrations, something its leader Nelson Chamisa denied.
Zimbabwe was witnessing “an escalation, not only of Mugabe-type of terror but … something that will make Mugabe look like a baby in terms of terrorism,” Chamisa told reporters.
(Editing by James Macharia and John Stonestreet)