New Human Rights Commission Faced with Daunting Task

This long overdue Commission was sworn in today. It was provided for under the GPA and inserted into the Constitution by Constitution Amendment No. 19, which came into force in February 2009.

Under the chairmanship of the distinguished Professor Reginald Austin, the Commission has a mammoth task ahead of it. Despite constitutional guarantees of protection from such abuse, Zimbabwe has a long history of human rights being violated with impunity.

While we continue tolerating a culture of impunity human rights abuses can continue to flourish. Already there are a growing number of reports that intimidation and harassment have resurfaced in some parts of the country following pronouncements by President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai that elections should be held next year. We have still not dealt with the violent crimes committed in the 2008 election period, though Article XVIII(j) of the GPA speaks of the role of the State to prosecute these offences whether committed by political party thugs or state agents. [In the few court cases that have been brought, the State has admitted the complicity of state agents.]

Of all the human rights abuses that have taken place in Zimbabwe, that of torture is the most heinous. It involves premeditation and planning, often total isolation, and not only incredible infliction of pain but the uncertainty of if and when it will end. It is a violation of all that makes us human.

It is hoped that the Commission will persuade the Government to sign the United Nations Convention against Torture and its Optional Protocol. Zimbabwe is one of the few SADC countries that have not signed this convention. [It is several years since Parliament passed a resolution recommending it be signed and a year since Zimbabwes failure to sign the convention was raised in Parliament and co-Minister of Home Affairs Giles Mutsekwa said he would look into the matter.]

It is also hoped that each and every commissioner will read the recently launched report from Crisis Coalition which seeks to expose the use of torture. It tells the stories of political and human rights activists who have been tortured at various locations in Zimbabwe, some for months on end.

Torture Victims Cry Out for Justice

Disbelief, anger, outrage, shame, indignation, pain, sorrow and compassion: these must be among the emotions experienced by those who attended the launching of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalitions report on torture in Zimbabwe: Cries from Goromonzi: Inside Zimbabwes Torture Chambers, during which, through anguished sobs, a victim recounted her ordeals.

Rutendo Munengami described how one day in the dead of night in 2003 she was surrounded by a gang of 10 armed men. Her house was ransacked, she was raped, mocked, brutalized, unlawfully arrested and threatened with being thrown into a pool of acid to melt without a trace. She was subjected to all this barbarity and cruelty simply because she and her husband were known supporters of a political party. Munengami spoke for all torture victims and survivors when she declared tearfully: We want truth and justice, there can be no healing without it and we cannot go into elections with unhealed wounds.

The packed auditorium at the Book Caf in Harare, the venue for the occasion, became so charged with emotion that Munengamis cry for justice and restoration of her dignity as a human being became a collective cry, with many in the audience weeping openly and others struggling to remain composed. Munengamis ordeal is one of 23 accounts of torture and brutality, narrated by the victims themselves, which make up Cries from Goromonzi. The book makes painful reading, covering as it does an unimaginable spectrum of depravity, perversity and sadism.

Sexual torture

Sexual violation is a lethal weapon in the arsenal of the merchants of violence and torture, with female victims describing how they were gang-raped [and as a result tested HIV positive after their ordeals], had blunt objects and chilli powder inserted into their private parts or were force marched naked after having their clothes ripped off. Male victims were not spared either and many recount in the book how their genitals were burnt with electric wires, crushed, pierced with sharp objects or tied up with string. The results of sexual torture are pernicious. It undermines the whole identity of the person and affects self image, personal relationships and family life ever afterwards.

Other torture methods used

Torture survivors told how they were subjected to electric shocks, attempted suffocation, and repeatedly having their heads dipped in buckets of water. Some were also suspended upside down from what they described as the torture bridge. Almost all victims were threatened, verbally abused, brutalized and then denied medical treatment. Some of these methods of torture caused a global outcry when they were exposed at the Ahbu Ghraib Prison and Guantanamo Bay after the invasion of Iraq by America and her allies. What a shock it is to discover that the use of these inhuman methods of intimidation, for which the Americans were heavily criticized, including by Zimbabwe, were practised in our country.

Pattern of systematic, organized violence exposed

The testimonies of victims contained in the report prove beyond doubt that the perpetration of violence and torture in Zimbabwe was so systematic that it cannot be described as anything other than organized. There was nothing random and isolated about it. Survivors whose ordeals are recounted in the book include Minister Nelson Chamisa, who was beaten up at Machipisa police station on March 11th 2007 and a few weeks later at Harare International Airport, where he lost consciousness and almost lost an eye and once again had to be admitted to the intensive care ward in hospital. Secretary to the Prime Minister, Ian Makone, was severely beaten at the ZCTU demonstration in 2006 and again when a gang of eight men armed with guns, machetes and iron bars surrounded and assaulted him while he was on his way to the Save Zimbabwe Campaign prayer meeting in March 2007. Later that same month, armed police and soldiers, arriving in 16 vehicles, broke into his house in Domboshava at 2 am and ransacked it. He was abducted and tortured and only released on bail in July. Victims included journalists Gift Phiri, Andrison Manyere and Luke Tamborinyoka, members of Parliament, election agents, trade unionists, opposition and human rights activists and women singled out for being married to men known to support a political party.

Those who paid the ultimate price

The poignant stories are told of the needless deaths of Tonderai Nhira and Better Chokururama, who both died after brutal encounters with the State security apparatus. Plaxedes Mutariswa, wife of the late MDC-T activist Tonderai Ndira, says she continues to live a nightmare since her husband was gruesomely murdered in the countdown to the run-off election. No one has been charged with the murder. I do not know what these people did to my husband, she says. I do not know the pain and suffering he went through and I do not know what his last thoughts and words were. But I want whoever murdered my husband to face justice. Perpetrators should be arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. You cannot take life and live your life as if nothing happened. As long as it is protecting these people, the inclusive government cannot bring healing to me.

Truth and Justice needed for Reconciliation, Forgiveness and Healing

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai gave the keynote address at the launch, which was held on the anniversary of the day, 11th March 2007, when political and civil society leaders including himself were en route to the Save Zimbabwe Campaign prayer meeting and were arrested by security forces and brutally assaulted at Machipisa police station. Mr Tsvangirai was later hospitalised with head wounds. In his speech he said it was difficult to ignore the cries of the victims of violence and torture and acknowledged there would be no healing as long as the perpetrators of the atrocities refused to unclench their fists. He said forgiveness could not exist in a vacuum and the publication of Cries from Goromonzi removed the veneer of normalcy and enabled the nation to face the truth.

Cries from Goromonzi, which is illustrated with colour pictures graphically showing the horrific injuries inflicted on victims, makes for gruelling reading. It is excruciating to be brought face these unspeakable atrocities perpetrated against defenceless citizens. It makes one ashamed to be a Zimbabwean, but as Zimbabweans we need to read it and know what happened and ensure that it never happens again, for no one can be truly free in a country where the intrinsic value of every human being and the sanctity of life are not upheld.

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