These women are victims of an escalating crackdown on the right to freedom of expression and criminalization of dissent.
HARARE, Zimbabwe – Three female opposition activists in Zimbabwe who gave detailed accounts of torture, humiliation, and sexual assault by unidentified state agents have been ordered to remain in prison to face charges that they invented their ordeal.
The three women, all leaders of the Movement for Democratic Change’s youth section, have been held in the infamous Chikirubi high-security jail since Friday. They face prison sentences of up to 20 years or a fine.
Clad in prison garb, the three activists appeared weak and distressed as they climbed out of a prison truck on Monday morning minutes before their bail hearing at Harare’s central magistrate’s court. Netsai Marova, 25, held a walking aid as Joana Mamombe, 27 and one of Zimbabwe’s youngest MPs, assisted her.
The three women disappeared after being detained by police and soldiers last month after a demonstration in Harare and were found on a roadside 60 miles away from the capital two days later, badly injured and traumatized.
After giving detailed and graphic accounts of repeated beatings, humiliation, and sexual assault to local and international media, the three were charged with “making false statements prejudicial to the state” and jailed. United Nations human rights experts have called for the charges against the three women to be dropped.
Kazembe Kazembe, Zimbabwe’s home affairs minister, said last week that the government “does not permit any of its institutions and agencies to use torture, forced disappearance or abductions” and that examinations by government doctors had not shown any injuries that matched the three women’s accounts.
MDC leaders in court held placards in support of the activists while riot police patrolled outside.
Fadzayi Mahere, a spokesman for the MDC, said the case against the three women was “flimsy”. “The torture continues as they are denied food and warm clothes in prison. The state is at war with its citizens,” Mahere said.
Relatives and lawyers have not been allowed to take food to the three women, leaving them without anything to eat for more than three days, representatives said.
“Since Friday they have not had anything meaningful so the magistrate ordered that they get food from outside,” Alec Muchadehama, the lead lawyer for the defendants, said.
Chikirubi maximum security prison in Harare is known for its poor conditions, with severe overcrowding, few facilities, and rudimentary medical care. The women will spend at least another week in Chikirubi unless an appeal to the high court is successful.
Suspected state security services have abducted dozens of pro-democracy campaigners, trade unionists, and opposition officials in recent years. Most have been released after several hours, though many have been badly beaten, stripped, threatened or otherwise mistreated.
The Zimbabwe human rights commission said its preliminary investigation into the alleged detention of the three women who appeared in court on Monday had established that serious abuses had taken place.
One of the women, Cecilia Chimbiri, 33, told African Stand they had been taken to a remote, wooded area where they were beaten, stripped naked, sexually assaulted with firearms, and forced to drink each other’s urine.
“They beat me on my back, all over the body using sticks. They used a gun to beat us, then molested me,” Chimbiri said. “They pushed us out of the truck on to the road. They left us there. They said, ‘We will be watching you … What is so special about you that you want to turn against the government?’”
Mamombe described being forced to march and sing protest songs. “They were pouring water on us. They beat us if we stopped. They made us drink each other’s urine,” Mamombe, 26, told reporters.
Authorities in Zimbabwe frequently suggest that such incidents have been staged to discredit the government, often with the alleged involvement of an outside power.
Allegations that unidentified third parties were undermining the authorities were a staple under Mugabe, who ruled for 37 years and died last year in a clinic in Singapore.
Zimbabwe’s worst economic crisis in more than a decade and rising public anger have stoked concern that the military, which ended Mugabe’s rule, might step in again.
Last week, Zimbabwe’s national security council in a maiden news conference accused allies of Mugabe and some opposition officials of peddling rumours of an impending military coup and said the country was stable.
Nelson Chamisa, the MDC leader, continues to dispute his narrow loss to Mnangagwa in the 2018 elections but has struggled to mobilize mass support despite growing public discontent with Mnangagwa, who has been unable to fulfill promises of economic prosperity and greater political freedom.