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BSR: Concerning abduction and torture in Zimbabwe

Alex T. Magaisa

The abduction and torture of three members of the MDC Alliance by suspected state agents is a serious blot on the nation’s image at a time when it is desperately seeking rehabilitation and readmission into the broader family of nations.

Torture is a crime against humanity. Protection from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is one of the absolute rights guaranteed under the Constitution of Zimbabwe and international law. However, while it has pride of place in the constitution, the Zimbabwean state habitually pays scant regard to protection against torture.

The three young women, Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri are not the first to suffer abduction and torture under the ZANU PF regime. They join a growing list of opposition politicians, activists and artists who have been abducted and subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment since the coup in November 2017. The government denies involvement, but it is an embarrassingly vacant defence.

Exposing the facade of a New Dispensation

These abductions have revealed the facade of the New Dispensation which President Mnangagwa and his government have touted to the world. Abduction and torture were favoured tools under the regime of Robert Mugabe from the days of Gukurahundi in the 1980s to the 2008 election violence.

The Mugabe regime inherited the architecture and instruments of violence from the colonial state. What is happening under the Mnangagwa regime represents continuities from Smith and Mugabe regimes, exposing the fallacy of the so-called New Dispensation. This is not surprising as the regime is led by men who were Mugabe’s henchmen during his lengthy rule from 1980 to 2017 when they toppled him in a coup.

Key members of the current regime were central to the egregious state violence during Gukurahundi and the 2008 election violence. This is why observant watchers of Zimbabwean politics dismissed the mantra of change at the time of the coup in 2017. It was old wine in seemingly new bottles.

Deliberate and purposeful violence against women

The latest incident is a particularly gruesome reminder that the violent state targets women. Scholars and activists have long shown that women’s bodies are sites of sexual violence in conflict situations. The idea is to humiliate, dominate, dehumanise and satisfy the sexual gratification of perpetrators. The demonstration in respect of which the three women were initially arrested included male participants. It is clear that the State deliberately and purposefully targeted the female participants.

The conduct of the State violates not just domestic laws but also regional and international laws. These include the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. Torture is banned under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Gory details of the three women’s experiences that have been shared so far indicate that they were subjected to the vilest treatment which ticks all the boxes of the definition of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Some of the information suggests the use of sexual violence and being forced to eat human waste. Still and moving images that have been shown show three young women who are severely traumatised by their experience.

There are good reasons why torture is prohibited under international law. It is dehumanising. The absolute prohibition against torture means any evidence obtained under torture is inadmissible in a court of law. Views against torture are strongly held in countries with a human rights culture that courts refuse to order even convicted criminals to be deported to countries where they are likely to face torture.

State admission

The government’s attempts to deny involvement in the abduction and torture of the three opposition politicians have proved disingenuous and dishonest. They were undone by an admission a day after the disappearance of the women that they had been arrested by the police and they were in police custody. This official admission was made by the spokesperson of the Zimbabwe Republic Police.

“I can confirm that the police arrested the three in Harare today in connection with an illegal demonstration … They are in our custody and we are still making further investigations into the issue,” said Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi. He was quoted in the state daily, The Herald which ran a story under the headline “MDC-A legislator Mamombe, 2 others arrested”. The same story was also reported in a private daily, the Daily News.

Therefore, for the State to turn back and deny that the three women were not in its custody is not only false but disingenuous and dishonest. This means the women were taken from the police station by a group of people who are connected to the State and in any event, once they were in the custody of the State, it was responsible for their safety and protection. The fact that the three women were subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment while in the hands of the State is a severe indictment on the Zimbabwean government.

The fact that the government issued a statement feigning ignorance over the issue is not only embarrassing but a show of irresponsibility and callousness.

So what could have happened?

Maybe the police spokesperson spoke in good faith but he spoke too soon, unaware that other members of the state had vile plans for the three women who had been arrested by the police. Maybe Assistant Commissioner Nyathi had not been briefed before he spoke to the press. In this case, it could be an admission in error. However, if this was an error, this could have been corrected before the publication of The Herald which manages State propaganda. The only problem is they might have struggled to control the Daily News which also carried the story.

The second possibility is that the police spokesperson did not make an error and in fact, there was a method in his communication. It was an admission that was deliberately and purposefully made by those who did not agree with what was happening to the three women. If this is correct, and admittedly it is an optimistic view, the admission may prove to be the most important act that saved the lives of the three women. Their abductors could not make them disappear forever as has happened to other activists in the past. The admission had exposed the State.

To get a better picture, imagine if the police spokesperson or other senior State official had made a direct admission that Itai Dzamara was seized by the State? It would have been impossible for the State to deny any involvement as it continues to do to this day. In the case of the women, Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi and the editors of The Herald and the Daily News placed the information into the public domain that may well be the life-saver.

In any event, the State is in a bind. The record has it that the three women were abducted and subjected to torture while they were in the hands of the State. However hard the State tries to say otherwise, this is impossible to shake off.

Self-introspection for civil society

However, it is not just the State that has been exposed by this incident. Civil society organisations will have to do some self-introspection over the way they reacted to news of the abduction. The leading voice was the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which used social media to highlight the plight of the three women. This gave confidence to social media users to raise their voices.

But there seemed to be a cloud of doubt which immobilised some CSOs and leading figures, being overly cautious, seemingly reluctant to soil their reputations. The inertia which seemed to grip some parts of civil society, especially those concerned with women’s rights, was a low moment. It was almost as if people were embarrassed to stand with the three women. It is not surprising that ZANU PF and its sympathisers were and continue to be dismissive of the plight of the three women. That is how they are wired to behave. What was surprising was that usually critical voices were either lukewarm or dismissive, carrying on as if it was business as usual.

There are important lessons to be drawn from this episode if people are willing to learn. In my opinion, it is better to be vocal and wrong than to be silent and wrong when it comes to matters of life and personal security under threat. Commendable was the ZLHR’s swift, vigilant and alert approach throughout the entire episode.

Awkward for party claimants

The episode also presented an awkward moment for the MDC group led by Dr Thokozani Khupe which has recently enjoyed success in the elite theatres of power, the courts and parliament. All three are members of the MDC and one is an MP, and going by the decision of the Speaker, is one of their members. It’s all very well in times of glory, but in a difficult moment, the key members were missing in action.

A late tweet by Dr Khupe, with the appearance of an after-thought, referred to them as “civilians” and not even to members of her party. It did not even refer to Joana Mamombe MP, as a legislator of her party. She did not have the confidence of Nick Mangwana, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Publicity who described her as an MP of the MDC-T.

“The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) condemns the abuse and torture of civilians. We challenge the law enforcement agencies to desist from using any form of force on unarmed civilians when discharging their duties and call upon the authorities to conduct a full investigation,” Dr Khupe tweeted.

It reads like a tweet that was written out of duty rather than conviction. It is dry and devoid of empathy for or connection with the three female survivors of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It was written because something had to be said. It was the first tweet of the entire episode. It is easy to rely on political referees for favourable political decisions but more difficult to command emotions.

Enablers of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment

Every authoritarian regime is held up by a set of enablers. The issue of enablers of authoritarianism was covered extensively in a previous BSR. If this horrible episode does not bring sobriety to some of those who joined this regime believing they could change it from within, it is hard to imagine what else will. But they have already shrugged off two episodes in which civilians were killed in cold blood.

They cannot complain when it is said they are enabling a regime which abducts, tortures and degrades women most callously. They have also become enablers of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of women. Since the regime carries on, as usual, the enablers, including advisers are failing at their task. It was an impossible and thankless task from the start. As for advisers, they must sooner or later come to terms with the harsh reality that they are merely of ornamental value to the regime which does not take them seriously. The same applies to POLAD, the political actors' dialogue, another hopeless facade.


The most important people in this sad episode are the three young women who have survived a most horrendous experience at the hands of the State. Our Constitution says every citizen is entitled “to the protection of the State”. The State and all its agencies are required to protect and promote fundamental rights and freedoms, including due process and protection from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The State has failed these citizens. The evidence is that they were in its custody and the least that the government can do is to accept responsibility and atone for its conduct rather than to continue embarrassing itself with inane and dishonest denials. For the state to persist with its denials is to mock the young women.


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