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Zimbabweans Bid to Amend Draconian Security Law

For the first time since an inclusive government was sworn into power a year ago, steps have been taken to amend security legislation that enabled the previous government to detain thousands of people.

Since the government of national unity came to power, the Cabinet made up of ministers from ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change has not repealed any repressive legislation. Nor has it been able to agree on a program to change the security and media laws that have long been criticized by pro-democracy groups.

But proposed legislation will soon be put to parliament to amend security laws that have been used from colonial days to suppress freedom of assembly.

Legislators from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are presenting proposed amendments to Zimbabwe's Public Order and Security Act to people around their country for their comment and views.

MDC legislator Douglas Mwonzora is co-chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing constitutional reform. He says the proposed amendments would drop the requirement for political party and trade-union meetings, and all indoor meetings to be cleared by the police.
Under the amendments, only the courts would have power to ban meetings and only four days notice of a public gathering would be needed.

Mwonzora said the proposed amendments would improve freedom of assembly. He said the present legislation has been used against political organizations for decades.

"It has far reaching consequences in our law," he said. "The old law that is the Public Order and Security Act is itself derived from the Law and Order Maintenance Act, which is an act which was used by the Rhodesian government to suppress dissent, to suppress the nationalists. The new act that came as a replacement achieved basically the same objectives of a government suppressing dissent."

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights group has represented many people detained under the security laws. Group director Irene Petras said the amendments bill is a key moment for all Zimbabweans, regardless of political loyalties.

"The importance of the bill cannot be underestimated because it is the first time we have had a private member's bill and it is addressing legislation which is of critical importance and which has been very controversial," said Petras. "If the honorable members of parliament are able to put aside their partisan interests and look at how this law has really affected and traumatized society, they should be able to pass this for the good of the country."

It is unclear if these amendments will pass through parliament, where power is almost evenly divided between the MDC and ZANU-PF.