Human rights groups in Zimbabwe expressed concern on Friday over the continuing crackdowns on pro-democracy activists, following the detention this week of members of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) as they demonstrated in the capital, Harare.
On Wednesday, members of the NCA had gathered at Africa Unity Square in the city centre to lobby for a new constitution. They were arrested and detained overnight under the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which outlaws protests unless police permission is granted.
The NCA are demanding a new constitution, which dilutes the powers of the president and better reflects issues of human rights.
According to a statement from Zimbabwe's Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), lawyers trying to secure the release of the protesters were denied access and prevented from entering the Harare Central Police Station.
One of their legal representatives, Beatrice Mtetwa, told IRIN the riot police "literally threw us out of the police station".
Alec Muchadehama, the lawyer of NCA leader Lovemore Madhuku, told IRIN that those arrested were released on payment of a fine on lesser charges under the Miscellaneous Offences Act, after a meeting with the attorney general on Thursday. However, Madhuku refused to pay, maintaining that there was no basis to any of the charges, and was released on bail and ordered to appear in court on Monday.
IRIN was unable to get comment from the police on Friday.
The NCA arrests followed the arrest two weeks ago of opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi, also under the POSA, for his involvement in a number of anti-government stayaways earlier this year. The stayaways were held countrywide to protest deteriorating economic and political conditions.
Nyathi joined a long list of MDC members, including the party president Morgan Tsvangirai, and vice-president Gibson Sibanda, who face similar charges and, if found guilty, could be sent to jail for 20 years. At the beginning of October police also arrested a number of trade union leaders throughout the country for marching in protest over economic problems and alleged human rights abuses.
In a statement, the ZLHR said: "This latest action by the police gives continuing evidence of how the state contrives to silence democratic activity in Zimbabwe, even against the overwhelming evidence of the decline, not only of the economy, but also of democracy itself in Zimbabwe."
The organisation added that it was "gravely concerned at the continuation of threats, harassment and intimidation of lawyers, particularly those handling human rights-related cases" and called upon the police to comply with its obligation to ensure that adequate protection was offered to lawyers.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum characterised the arrests as the latest use of POSA to "stifle freedom of expression, association and movement in Zimbabwe".
It said: "The enforcement of repressive legislation, combined with the disregard by the police for the constitutional rights of individuals, has reached an alarming and totally unacceptable level in the country and must be redressed as a matter of the utmost urgency."
John Makumbe, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Zimbabwe, told IRIN that although protests in Zimbabwe almost guaranteed arrests, and may appear to be pointless, they kept the international spotlight on human rights issues.
"People are going to die today because of the shortage of drugs in the country's hospitals, and nothing will be written about that person who dies quietly. But the person arrested and put in prison will be able to highlight their plight," said Makumbe, who is also acting coordinator of the pro-democracy Crisis in Zimbabwe coalition.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions