WASHINGTON DC — Police in Bulawayo broke up a Valentine's Day march by the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) Thursday and detained close to 200 protesters who say they were assaulted during the arrests.
The majority of the activists were later released, including the group’s leaders, Jenny Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu. Only about 10 or so remained in custody at the Bulawayo Central Police Station.
The women's pressure group staged another demonstration in Harare on Wednesday. Riot police responded with tear gas that sent the over 1,000 protesters scurrying for cover.
And back in Bulawayo, the police were even more heavy-handed.
Williams told VOA that most of their members were left nursing injuries, adding the treatment by police was particularly regrettable, coming on Valentine's Day.
"Many of us sustained soft-tissue injuries, and some of our members are still detained," said Williams, adding that "we condemn the brutality with which we were treated by the police."
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) expressed deep concern over Thursday’s attack on peaceful demonstrators from the civic group, WOZA.
“The police assault on WOZA members, including National Coordinator Jenni Williams and Programs Coordinator Magodonga Mahlangu, came a day after authorities violently dispersed a peaceful protest in Harare, causing upwards of 25 WOZA members to seek medical care after sustaining injuries,” it said in a statement.
“Today’s reprehensible actions were an attempt to silence official WOZA complaints about police beatings and repeated brutality,” said Kerry Kennedy, President of the RFK Center.
“This display of violence on a day dedicated to love is another reminder of the persistent attacks that face human rights defenders, especially women, in Zimbabwe today," said Kennedy.
Today’s demonstration, which took place in Bulawayo, marked the 11th straight year that WOZA members have marched on Valentine’s Day, a signature event for the 80,000-strong civic organization.
In September 2012, police arrested 10 WOZA members during a peaceful protest. On December 11, an estimated 80 WOZA members were again arrested, physically assaulted, and detained at Bulawayo Central Police station for staging a peaceful protest about the lack of access to water in the city.
"The seeming disregard for civic activism in Zimbabwe and the repeated instances of police brutality are very troubling," said Santiago A. Canton, Director of Partners for Human Rights at the RFK Center.
Canton said: "We urge the government of Zimbabwe to respect the basic rights to peaceful assembly and association and respectfully remind President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai of their public calls for peace and tolerance in the lead up to elections.”
According to most recent reports, the only WOZA members remaining in police custody are several men arrested during Thursday’s demonstration in Bulawayo.