Senior military commanders in Zimbabwe have denied their men were responsible for the shooting of six people in Harare just days after the country’s historic election in August.
The killings caused significant political difficulties for the government of Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa has made strenuous attempts to convince the international community that the ruling Zanu-PF party has forgone the repression and brutality that characterised its 38 years in power.
The vote was the first after the ousting of Robert Mugabe in a military takeover last year.
Brig Gen Anselem Sanyatwe, commander of the elite presidential guard, told a hearing in Harare of the special inquiry investigating the killings that “if any gunshot wounds were sustained by the victims, it was not from my men”.
“All those were shot before we deployed and this is true because we
never came across a dead body,” he said.
Sanyatwe said troops had fired warning shots as they were trained to do.
A widely circulated picture of a kneeling soldier who appeared to be
aiming at protesters was misleading, Sanyatwe said. The soldier was avoiding missiles thrown by protesters, he said.
The commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Gen Philip Valerio Sibanda, told the inquiry that the soldier concerned was firing warning shots.
“If he had been aiming there would have been more dead,” he said.
The senior officers’ testimony, made on Monday, contrasts markedly with the recollection of many witnesses to the violence, which followed scattered confrontations between police and protesters from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) angered by alleged electoral fraud.
The Guardian was present before and during the shootings, which occurred as a small number of protesters carrying stones and sticks clashed with riot police armed with teargas and water cannon.
The protesters appeared to be dispersing when the police suddenly withdrew. After a short time, soldiers could be seen moving through the streets of the market area in central Harare pointing their weapons at shoppers, office workers and others. Volleys of automatic fire could also be heard. The Guardian saw patrols of soldiers clearing away panicked pedestrians at gunpoint. The pedestrians fled the area.
TV footage shows soldiers firing repeatedly in the direction of civilians.
Continual and intensive fire from automatic military grade weapons ceased when the streets were almost deserted. Armoured military vehicles appeared shortly afterwards.
Both Sibanda and Sanyatwe suggested that the violence was caused by armed supporters of the opposition.
They provided no evidence to back up the charge, which has been denied by the MDC.
David Coltart, a co-founder of the MDC, said the generals’ denials were “ridiculous”.
“These are people who have acted with completely impunity for years and who have done much worse in the past,” he said.
“Is that your evidence?” asked Lovemore Madhuku, a veteran democracy activist and law professor who is one of the commissioners, adding that evidence by other witnesses showed that the shootings coincided with the military’s deployment. Motlanthe said the generals’ denials contradicted evidence so far received by the commission from other witnesses, including victims.
Police officials testified that they had not found information that would determine who killed the civilians.
DCI Edmore Runganga, who is leading investigations into the 1 August killings, said the police had not retrieved any cartridges from the sites of the shootings, did not have any suspects and had made no arrests.
Jacob Mafume, an MDC party spokesperson, expressed doubt that the inquiry would lead to the truth. “This just confirms our previously stated position that this commission of inquiry is a farce, a process meant to cleanse the army and put blame on the opposition,” said Mafume. “We are not taking it seriously.”