HARARE – Zimbabwe is playing a risky game of brinksmanship by cracking down on non-profit groups that promote democracy, threatening an emerging relationship with Western countries that have brought billions of dollars in aid over the past three years.
The southern African nation may be betting the Western countries cannot afford to cut relations with Harare, which is rich in minerals.
But Zanu PF, which retains a stranglehold on the fragile coalition, may also fear it has much more than foreign aid to lose if it fully embraces a democratic transition that could bring accountability for 2008 election atrocities and brings to an end its long-standing domination of politics.
Zimbabwe last week referred three civil rights campaigners of pro-democracy non-profit group Counselling Services Unit to trial before a criminal court on “trumped-up” accusations they illegally defaced a provincial information office for President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF in the second city of Bulawayo.
Observers, however, say the police raid on CSU — a Harare-based legally registered clinic which provides non-partisan counselling to victims of trauma — was aimed at destroying evidence of the 2008 atrocities.
Police stormed the CSU offices on November 5 searching for “subversive” material, and confiscated computers and medical records.
They rounded-up five employees at the centre, released two, and transferred the rest to Bulawayo Central Police Station from Harare.
Fidelis Mudimu, Zachariah Godi and Tafadzwa Geza were bundled in an open pickup truck, registration number ACD 6377 up to Kwekwe. From Kwekwe they were transported to Bulawayo in a twin cab registration number ABI 3608 where they were detained, charged and freed on bail.
The raid immediately prompted angry denunciations from the 27-nation EU bloc and the US who both reminded Zimbabwe about its Global Political Agreement (GPA) obligation to ensure that noone is subjected to harassment or intimidation for addressing human rights.
Both the EU and the US demanded that Zimbabwe police return all assets seized in the raid of the NGOs and immediately end the investigations and prosecutions.
The US embassy said non-partisan trauma and medical counselling was a vital part of Zimbabwe’s work to re-build a strong, just democracy after over a decade of political trauma.
“The United States calls on all Zimbabweans to support and protect that work,” the statement said.
“This search represents the latest incident in a worrying trend of deploying elements of state security sector institutions to threaten and intimidate political activists and those who provide support to victims of such intimidation and abuse.”
The US embassy slammed “the illegal access to confidential patient medical records.”
“Patient record confidentiality is a critical part of medical services and should be respected through strict adherence to the law.”
The depth of the tensions was evident in the EU delegation statement, which expressed worry that the three have been charged and could be potentially incarcerated for what are trumped up charges.
Describing the raid as “alarming”, the EU heads of mission expressed “deep concern” on rising incidents of harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and members of civil society in Zimbabwe.
“The freedom of assembly, association and expression are essential components in any democracy,” the EU statement said.
“Under the GPA, Zimbabwe undertook to ensure that both its legislation and its procedures and practices were in accordance with international human rights principles and laws; the EU delegation also attaches importance to this.”
Harare’s campaign against the pro-democracy groups could seriously damage relations with far-reaching ramifications in a country beginning to recover from a decade of economic meltdown.
The EU said the recent incidents of harassment raise particular concern in the context of concluding the constitution-making process as well as in preparing for peaceful and credible elections.
The US echoed that call.
“In the lead up to national elections, the United States looks to the government of Zimbabwe to ensure that all security sector leaders and groups strictly follow President Mugabe’s call for non-violence; and that they also follow a policy of non-interference in democratic processes, including no harassment, intimidation, or hints of retribution,” the US embassy statement said. – Gift Phiri, Political Writer