The United Nations Human Rights Office says it is “concerned” by a new Human Rights Watch report that says Zimbabwe’s government is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Marta Hurtado, spokeswoman of the U.N. Human Rights Office, said the agency is encouraging President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government to engage with civil society and other stakeholders to find sustainable solutions to grievances, while ensuring that people’s rights and freedoms are protected in accordance with Zimbabwe’s human rights obligations.
“We are indeed concerned at allegations that suggest that the Zimbabwean authorities may be using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association," Hurtado said.
"Merely calling for a peaceful protest or participating in a peaceful protest are an exercise of recognized human rights. An example of intimidation is the repeated arbitrary arrest and detention of three members of the main opposition party for taking part in a protest.”
That is an apparent reference to three female opposition activists who were arrested in May for protesting the Zimbabwe government’s failure to provide payouts during a lockdown to contain the coronavirus. They now face two more charges - all related to breaking lockdown regulations.
On Thursday, HRW released a report chronicling how 23 African governments are using the COVID-19 pandemic to clamp down on freedom of the media and of assembly.
On Friday, Cecillia Chimbiri - one of the three female opposition activists mentioned in the HRW report - welcomed the U.N. Human Rights Office’s statement on Zimbabwe. She maintains the trio’s innocence and wants Zimbabwe government look after its citizens during lockdowns.
“The demo was simply to say: people are hungry, what are you doing as the government of Zimbabwe, people are unemployed, Zimbabweans live hand to mouth? We are law-abiding citizens," she told VOA. " Speaking against the government doesn’t make us unpatriotic. We love our country that’s why we are speaking against any injustices and any inequalities that are existing. We did not commit any crime. We are not criminals. They are trying to tarnish our images, this is what this government is doing, to clampdown voices, to make sure they continue doing that (abuses).”
On Wednesday, Elasto Mugwadi, the head of the government-affiliated Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, confirmed to VOA that his organization had received complaints of abuses raised in the HRW report. He said the complaints included “robust approach in enforcement by the police” and “generally excessive enforcement.”
Mugwadi said the commission was investigating the complaints of abuses during the lockdown by the Zimbabwe government to contain coronavirus.
“While recognizing the government’s efforts to contain the pandemic, it is important to remind the authorities that any restrictions should be necessary, proportionate and time-limited, and enforced humanely without resorting to unnecessary or excessive force," Hurtado said.
The HRW report, Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse, said the rights group was concerned about introduction of Zimbabwe’s Public Health Order Act in March, which threatened up to 20 years in prison for fake news on public health matters.