Zimbabwe union leader still missing after suspected abduction

Activists fear Peter Magombeyi was kidnapped by state agents for role in doctors’ strike

Doctors protest outside Parirenyatwa hospital in Harare
 Doctors protest outside Parirenyatwa hospital in Harare on Sunday, the day after Peter Magombeyi disappeared. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

Concerns are growing for a doctor and labour activist in Zimbabwe who remains missing more than 48 hours after his abduction by suspected state security agents.

Peter Magombeyi, the acting president of the Zimbabwean Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA), disappeared at around 10pm on Saturday. The union leader sent a short message to colleagues saying he believed he was being kidnapped before all communications ceased.

Magombeyi, who is leading a nationwide doctors’ strike to force president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government to raise wages for medical staff, had previously received warnings, which he believed came from security services, to stop his activism.

Hundreds of Zimbabwean doctors protested in central Harare, the capital, on Monday over the disappearance of Magombeyi but riot police blocked them from marching to Mnangagwa’s office.

The ZHDA represents mainly junior doctors at public hospitals.

Demonstrators chanted: “No Peter, no work” and held placards reading: “Bring Peter back” as riot police stopped them from marching beyond the high court building.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, a campaign group, said: “Dr Magombeyi was leading the current industrial action by government doctors and ZADHR believes his abduction is a result of his activities in defending the rights of health workers.”

Dr Peter Magombeyi
 Peter Magombeyi had previously been warned to stop his activism. He is leading a nationwide doctors’ strike for higher wages. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

Government officials said they would investigate Magombeyi’s disappearance but denied responsibility.

Dozens of pro-democracy campaigners, trade unionists and opposition officials have been abducted by suspected state security services since contested elections last year. Most have been released after several hours, though many have been badly beaten, stripped, threatened or otherwise mistreated.

Nick Mangwana, the information secretary, suggested the abductions were being carried out by a “third force” to destabilise the country.

“Threats to the security of persons and acts of terror are ultimately threats to the security of the state. There is no rhyme nor reason for the state to undermine itself,” he said.

Allegations that unidentified third parties were undermining authorities were a staple under Robert Mugabe, the previous president, who died this month in a clinic in Singapore.

Zimbabwe hosted foreign dignitaries from across Africa for Mugabe’s state funeral on Saturday.

Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years before being forced to resign after a military takeover in November 2017. He was succeeded by Mnangagwa, who promised to bring foreign investment to avert a deepening economic crisis, reform government and rehabilitate the former British colony’s international image.

Zimbabwe is crippled by massive debts incurred during Mugabe’s rule and needs a multibillion-dollar bailout to prevent economic collapse. However, continuing repression and a lack of tangible political reform means there is little chance of international institutions offering major aid packages.

Doctors are among millions of public employees in Zimbabwe who have suffered from soaring inflation and a shortage of currency and basic commodities. The health sector faces a severe lack of medicine and funds.

Since unrest in January after a rise in fuel prices, more than 20 labour activists, campaigners and opposition politicians have been charged with subversion, an offence that could bring a long prison sentence.

Job Sikhala, an opposition MP charged with subversion, said he would contest the charges. “I am a fighter … so I will fight,” he said.

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