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Activists in Zimbabwe Suffer Arrests, Beatings


The southern African nation of Zimbabwe is suffering from massive inflation, rampant poverty, and a 90 percent unemployment rate. But when people try to speak out against the situation and the current government under President Robert Mugabe, they say they are subjected to harassment, arrest and even beatings. A reporter for VOA, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, filed this undercover report from Bulawayo.

A political meeting in the city of Bulawayo, the second largest city in the country, is an energetic occasion, full of singing, chanting and vitriolic speeches.

Despite their powerful rhetoric, the men who are leaders of the opposition political party in Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change, live with fear.

They fear arrest and violence because they speak out against the long-time President Robert Mugabe and his repressive government.

Their apprehension is not unwarranted. In March of this year, a protest staged by the opposition party turned violent, and police beat many members, including high-profile leaders.

"We are going to a safe house – where we live and work – in the underground of Zimbabwe," says Jenni Williams, who has not slept under her own roof for over a year. She lives her life in fear that she might be followed, and drives quickly through the back roads of Bulawayo to avoid the police roadblocks.

"Quite a few people know my face, and most people know the kind of work that I do,” she tells us. “And, it's the most asked question of any of our members who are in custody – ‘Where does Jenni live?’"

She is a leader of a group called Women of Zimbabwe Arise – known as WOZA. They organize public protests, deemed illegal by the government and often brutally suppressed.

Undercover video from June shows a policeman disrupting the protest by lashing out with his baton. About 20 women were arrested and beaten that day.

Williams asks rhetorically, "Most of our members feel that if they are going to die; can they just not die silently?"

Opposition member David Coltart is also a member of the Zimbabwean Parliament. He has received death threats and survived an assassination attempt. Photographs show him participating in an illegal public demonstration – protesting the beating of lawyers.

"The riot police then followed us and reinforcements arrived,” Coltart recalled. “We walked about a block together when another truckload–full of riot police, including riot police this time with weapons, with shotguns and high-velocity rifles arrived, and they said that if we didn't disperse there would be very severe consequences."

Severe consequences like the ones a woman we met – we will call her Faith – endured while in police custody. After she participated in another protest, she was beaten repeatedly and denied medical attention. "And after that we saw policemen. They come running with baton sticks. They beat me, beat me all over and then they beat me on my breasts," she said.

President Mugabe blames any unrest on what he calls the influences of western powers working through disloyal opposition. He says they are interested in destabilizing the Zimbabwe government for their own personal gains.

"The violence and other acts of lawlessness we have witnessed in recent months, which were planned and executed in complicity with western powers,” the president said in a recent speech, “were meant to create mayhem and hence a basis to place our country on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council."

Journalists are subject to arrest if found to be operating without government permission, which is why much of our video is shot out of moving cars and many interviews are shot to keep the subject's identity a secret.

One such interviewee told us, "Here in Zimbabwe, it is difficult to get something to eat. So, living in Zimbabwe is now so hectic, so stressful," he said.

Even doing something as simple as changing local money into foreign currency can land you in jail.

David Coltart, the member of Parliament, said, "In essence it shows that this is indeed a police state, that this is a fascist society."

Opposition leaders such as Coltart, joined by ordinary people in the streets, say they face this everyday.