Op-Ed

Blocked internet in Zimbabwe hides government crimes against humanity

By David Coltart 20 January 2019
Caption
Protestors burn tyres during a demonstration over the recent fuel price increase and the rising cost of living in the high density suburb of Warren Park, Harare, Zimbabwe, 15 January 2019. EPA-EFE/AARON UFUMELI

The Mnangagwa regime’s blocking of the internet, particularly Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube in Zimbabwe is the modern equivalent of Nazi book burnings. The world needs to act against this urgently.

The regime of Emmerson Mnangagwa took the unprecedented, unconstitutional and therefore illegal action of turning off the internet entirely throughout Zimbabwe on 16 January. Not even Robert Mugabe ever turned off the internet during his rule. Since then the internet has largely remained cut off and certain sites such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube have been permanently cut off. Zimbabweans have had to use other means to get news of the dreadful things taking place in the country out to the rest of the world. It has also been extraordinarily difficult to get news, even of events taking place on the other side of town.

This is the modern-day equivalent of the Nazi book burnings, a campaign conducted by the German Student Union (the “DSt”) to ceremonially burn books in Nazi Germany and Austria in the 1930s. The books targeted for burning were those viewed as being subversive or as representing ideologies opposed to Nazism. These included books written by Jewish, pacifist, religious, classical liberal, anarchist, socialist, and communist authors, among others. The book burning heralded far worse atrocities.

The Mnangagwa regime is fearful that the truth of what has actually happened in Zimbabwe since January 14 will be revealed. The propaganda being put out by the regime is that the MDC has organised violent protests which have caused destruction and that lawful means have been used by the state to quell the protests. The truth is that a three-day non-violent shutdown protest was called for by trade union, civic and church leaders. All specifically stated that the protest should be non-violent and repeated those pleas. The truth is that a sinister third force appears to have been involved and the state has been using unconstitutional means to deny Zimbabweans their constitutional right to protest peacefully.

There is a mounting body of evidence which suggests that a third force was involved in the rampant looting which has taken place across Zimbabwe. Companies who trade in Bulawayo’s suburbs have given evidence of a third force looting their properties on occasions with the police watching.

They have told of local residents warning them that people unknown to their local communities have been brought in, and that they (the local residents) have not themselves been involved in the looting. Having represented the citizens of Bulawayo for 13 years in parliament it seems completely out of character to me that they would have been involved in the wholesale destruction of the very shops they get their food from.

The people who have suffered the most are the local residents and I simply do not believe that they are behind this mayhem. Frustrated jobless youths, of course, may be involved in petty looting, but it is hard to accept that such widespread and seemingly co-ordinated looting was done without a hidden hand at play.

Given this regime’s propensity to use live ammunition and the widespread deployment of troops and police throughout Zimbabwe it is also hard to comprehend how such widespread looting could have happened on the scale it did. The lead story in a recent Newsday states that at least one army officer, police officer and ZANU PF youths were among those arrested by professional policemen trying to do their jobs. The MDC HQ building was firebombed on Wednesday by masked assailants. These reports lend credence to the suggestion that another hand has been at play in subverting what was meant to be a peaceful stayaway.

There are further appalling things which have happened. Doctors report people shot with live ammunition. It is thought numerous people have been killed through the use of live ammunition. There are reports of men in uniform systematically breaking into houses of innocent people in working-class areas. There are other reports of tear gas being randomly thrown into houses.

Hundreds of people have been detained. Lawyers attending to them in Harare on Wednesday reported to me that juveniles aged 14 are among those detained. They were being held with the adults — some had been held since 14 January, beyond the 48-hour limit for holding a person, as prescribed in the constitution.

When accused people were finally taken to court, lawyers have uniformly reported that other fundamental constitutional rights, such as the right to have a reasonable time to prepare a defence, have been violated. It appears that magistrates have been instructed to deny bail to everyone and to start trials immediately without allowing accused people time to adequately prepare their defences.

Magistrates are meant to exercise their discretion independently and it is odd that such a uniform practice has suddenly been applied countrywide. Included among the accused are of course civic and church leaders such as Pastor Evan Mawarire, who have clearly not committed crimes — Pastor Mawarire in all his statements unequivocally called for peaceful protests to be conducted as allowed by the constitution. His charges are utterly spurious. In contrast, it appears that some of those who have been accused of actual participation in violent acts, including looting, have been released on senior orders.

Finally, last night a horrifying new development commenced with the abduction of Teacher Trade Union leader Obert Masarure from his home by four armed men in plain clothes. This is reminiscent of the abductions of MDC activists in 2008 when some 400 were murdered in this manner. Other activists are in hiding — not because they have committed crimes, but because they fear for their lives.

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that the regime has decided to shut down the pesky internet. We must remember that some of the very same people responsible for Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina, and the 2008 crimes against humanity are still in charge of the government. When those crimes were committed the internet was either non-existent or far less pervasive than it is today. That enabled them to get away with their crimes then.

When innocents were gunned down by the military on the streets of Harare on the 1 August 2018, the regime learnt the lesson that the internet instantly reports the truth and provides damning evidence against the perpetrators. They simply cannot allow that to happen again and so they have cut off the internet, or at least the parts of it which can instantly convey images of abuse to the world.

The world must now act, and act urgently. Mnangagwa is in Davos and he must be taken to task thereby world leaders for the appalling human rights abuses and crimes against humanity being perpetrated against civilians by his regime.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has a particular responsibility to rein in his neighbour. If he fails to do so he will himself become complicit in the terrible things taking place in Zimbabwe. DM

*A “crime against humanity” is defined in section 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as “a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population, with knowledge of the attack, including murder, persecution on political grounds, involving the multiple commission of acts in furtherance of a state or organisational policy to commit such an attack”.

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