Zimbabwe: years-long harassment of labour rights defenders from ARTUZ (joint communication)

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The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Zimbabwe on 15 February 2022. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public. The Government did not respond during this time period. Any reply, if received, will be published on the UN communications database.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

BACKGROUND

Subject: the years-long harassment of members of the Amalgamated Rural Teacher’s Union of Zimbabwe, including the recent arrest of 16 members while exercising their right to assemble peacefully.

The Amalgamated Rural Teacher’s Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) is a trade union that works in rural areas, defending the rights of educators and teachers. The organisation, which has 35,000 members, advocates against inadequate working conditions, wages, and accommodation for rural teachers as well as poor provision of training.

We have previously communicated concerns to the Government of Zimbabwe on the repression of demonstrations advocating for labour rights in communication ZWE 1/2019 sent on 29 January 2019. We thank the Government for the reply received, however, we regret that the response denies many of the issues raised by the UN Special Procedures mandate holders, while we continue to receive information on targeting of defenders of labour rights in the context of demonstrations.

ALLEGATIONS

On 16 January 2019, the Secretary General of ARTUZ Mr. Robson Chere was reportedly abducted at the school where he works in Harare by members of the Military Intelligence. He was accused of orchestrating protests that had taken place over the previous two days against the rise in fuel prices. He was taken to Goromonzi police station and charged with “intimidating and assaulting military officers”. He was later acquitted of intimidation charges but convicted of assault and sentenced to 30 days in prison, a sentence he did not consume by paying the corresponding fine.

Two days later, on 18 January 2019, Military Intelligence officers entered the home of the National President of ARTUZ Mr. Obert Masaraure around midnight, and violently arrested him. He was handed over to police at Harare Central police station and was charged with “subversion” and “inciting public violence”. He spent 16 days in Chikurubhi prison after which he was released under strict bail conditions. At the beginning of his bail period, he was not permitted to post on social media or address public gatherings. His bail conditions have since been relaxed, requiring him to report to the police station once every three months. His trial is due to begin on 31 March 2022.

On 27 April 2019, four human rights defenders, including Mr. Chere, were abducted from a meeting of ARTUZ in Greystone Park in Harare by a group of suspected intelligence agents, dressed in plainclothes. Their training materials were confiscated, and they were taken in for questioning to the Central Intelligence Organisation section of the Harare Central police station. They reportedly were not given access to their lawyers during questioning and two of the human rights defenders were beaten by the officers. They were accused of “participating in gathering with intent to promote public violence, breaches of the peace or bigotry” under article 37 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act before charges were dropped the same day. The human rights defenders were released with the warning that they could be charged again if further evidence was found. Two of the human rights defenders reportedly made a complaint about the ill-treatment suffered at the hands of the police but never received information about any formal investigation.

On 13 February 2020, the four human rights defenders were once again charged with “participating in gathering with intent to promote public violence, breaches of the peace or bigotry”. They were acquitted of all charges by the Harare Magistrate Court on 21 August 2020.

On 12 January 2022, a demonstration was held by members of ARTUZ in front of the National Social Security Authority offices in Harare where the National Joint Negotiating Committee were holding a dialogue on teacher’s working conditions. Demonstrators were reportedly advocating for safe re-opening of schools in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and for wages to be restored to the levels that they had been receiving before a wage cut in October 2018.

According to the information received, anti-riot police violently interrupted the peaceful demonstration, instructing demonstrators to lie on the ground, some of whom they reportedly beat with batons. A number of demonstrators were arrested, among whom were 16 human rights defenders from ARTUZ. They were initially questioned at Harare Central police station without the presence of their lawyers, though they were allowed access later that day. They did not receive medical attention for their injuries sustained until the evening. The 16 human rights defenders were reportedly charged under Section 37(1)(a) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act for “participating in a gathering with intention to promote violence, bigotry and breaches of peace”. They were presented before Harare Magistrates Court on 14 January 2022 after which they were transferred to Harare Remand prison. The 16 were released on bail of 5,000 ZWL (approx. 15.50 USD) on 17 January 2022 and are cited before court on 17 February 2022.

CONCERNS 

In the communication we expressed our deep concern at what appears to be the systemic and arbitrary targeting of human rights defenders at ARTUZ who are working to promote the right to education and the right to an adequate standard of living for educators in rural areas. We are deeply concerned in particular by multiple allegations of arbitrary arrests, excessive use of force, and ill-treatment by police officers against the human rights defenders. We are concerned that such severe attacks, along with the frequent charges and harassment of its members are an attempt to stifle the work the organisation. We are furthermore concerned for the effect that such targeting may be an attempt to dissuade others from standing up and peacefully assembly for the right to education in the country.

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