Torture not a crime in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has been accused for many years of allowing members of the police force, the Defence Forces and the Central Intelligence Organisation, youth militias, and members and supporters of Zanu (PF), to enjoy impunity for violence against those perceived to be opposition supporters.

Much of the violence undoubtedly constitutes torture or inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment. But two recent cases suggest that cracks in that impunity may be developing, and with them the prospect of a more even-handed application of the law by the police and prosecuting authorities.

One is the criminal trial of three women police detectives in Bulawayo who subjected two women they had picked up on suspicion of theft to brutal assaults, apparently in an effort to extract confessions. The assaults included beating them on the soles of their feet with pieces of wood and batons. They were also beaten elsewhere on their bodies with a sjambok and a bottle, causing numerous bruises. One victim sustained a broken leg, with permanent disability.

The other had an arm broken. After their beating, they were detained for two days at Bulawayo Central police station and denied food, water and medical treatment. The officers responsible were convicted of assault and sentenced to pay fines of $200 each or serve four months’ imprisonment.

In a case which came before the High Court on circuit in Mutare last week, a police chief superintendent is being tried for causing the death of a suspected illegal diamond panner and assaulting three members of his family also taken into custody accused of illegal panning.

The victims had apparently claimed that as residents of the area they were digging a shallow well to obtain water for domestic purposes. The State’s case is that the accused officer perpetrated the assaults to extract confessions or to punish the suspects for attempting to find diamonds. One of the victims died in a police holding cell shortly afterwards. The others survived; and one of them has suffered lasting disability as a result of the assault.

Zimbabwean law does not have a criminal offence specifically called “torture”. This does not mean that acts of torture are not punishable as crimes. They are – but as the crime of assault, indecent assault, aggravated indecent assault, rape, murder, etc – depending on what the perpetrator did to his or her victim. We may, at some future stage, find ourselves with a new offence, specifically called “torture”, when Zimbabwe becomes a party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but for the time being acts of torture will be prosecuted under other names.

For police officers specifically, conduct amounting to torture is a serious disciplinary offence under the Police Act, which amongst other things condemns “using unnecessary violence towards, or neglecting or in any way ill-treating any person in custody or other person with whom he or she may be brought into contact in the execution of his or her duty”. Again, however, the word “torture” is not used.

Post published in: Politics

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *