Global democracy watchdog raps civil society arrests

Staff Reporter

The Washington-based World Movement for Democracy has released an alert in which it condemns the recent arrest of civil society activists who were conducting parallel voter tabulation during last week’s harmonised polls.

voter casts his ballot at Seke 7 Primary School in Chitungwiza

The association is a global network of civil society activists, scholars, lawmakers, journalists and thought leaders promoting good democratic practices.

The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) on Tuesday, 22 August, arrested 39 officers and volunteers working under the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and Election Resource Centre (ERC), accusing them of gathering polling results with the intention to announce them and engage in unspecified “subversive” activities.

Zimbabwean law specifies that only the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) can announce election results.

The 39—who last week appeared in court and were granted bail—were carrying officially recognised tabulation.

The ZESN and ERC were accredited to observe the 23-24 August general elections.

“…The electoral process was marred by the detention of election observers and the continuous harassment of independent voices,” the movement noted.

This was despite the fact that the parallel tabulation “was endorsed by the chair of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), Priscilla Chigumba, as a tool to bolster trust in electoral outcomes”, according to the alert.

The movement feared that, even though the activists had been granted bail, “their freedom will continue to be restricted”.

The 39 activists’ bail conditions include reporting to the police twice a week till their next appearance in court on 28 September.

There have been reports of citizen election observers, civil society leaders and Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC)—the main opposition party—members suffering intimidation.

“The detention of ZESN’s and ERC’s staff and volunteers, along with the ongoing intimidation of independent voices in the post-election period, raises serious concerns about Zimbabwe’s electoral process,” said the movement.

It described the raids on ZESN and ERC as “questionable”, adding that the arrests highlighted lack of democracy.

Several election observer missions have already highlighted serious deficits in the manner in which the elections were conducted.

The grey areas include acute delays in the delivery of ballot papers, nationwide intimidation of voters, failure to provide a readable voters’ roll, questionable delimitation of polling boundaries, biased government-controlled media, use of traditional chiefs in campaigns by the ruling Zanu PF and severe restrictions on freedom of assembly and movement involving the opposition.

Chitungwiza residents queue to vote

The missions that noted concerns with the election conduct include the SADC, European Union, Commonwealth, African Union-COMESA and Carter Centre teams.

The movement said it “stands in solidarity with Zimbabwe’s civil society organisations working to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process in their country”.

It urged the regional and international community to speak out against the “unjust arrests” and demand the dropping of charges preferred against the activists, continue monitoring the situation in Zimbabwe and ensure the safety and security of the arrested members.

The movement also called on the Zimbabwean government to embrace civil society organisations as watchdogs and revisit laws and bills that were unconstitutional or limited fundamental freedoms.

The laws include the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act that restricts political gatherings and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act that is viewed to limit freedom of expression.

There are widespread concerns around the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Bill that awaits passing by the president.

Among other things, the proposed law seeks to enable government officials to take over the running of PVOs alleged to deviate from their mandates.

The World Movement for Democracy called on SADC to ensure the Zimbabwean government respected the fundamental rights of association, expression and assembly.


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