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In Zimbabwe: At least 375 convicted for protest riots. Travesty of justice?

Steven Mahwai

HARARE – At least 375 people – predominantly opposition activists, who participated in the January protests that left at least 17 people dead and property worth millions of dollars destroyed, have been convicted for their hand in the melee.

The protests were triggered by an unexpected sharp rise in the price of fuel, introduced by President Emmerson Mnangagwa in a mindboggling live television broadcast.

Information obtained by this newspaper shows that 200 of those people were fined $20 each for various misconduct and 65 others were sent to jail for 2 years, after they were convicted of various offences which included theft, arson, assault and public violence.

In January police combed urban centres and arrested more than 1,000 people suspected to have been at the forefront of the largely violent protests which culminated in wanton looting and barricading of roads, demanding governments acts on the state of the economy.

Mnangagwa reacted by deploying armed soldiers, who brazenly opened fire at the people, killing at least 17 and injuring more than 80.  A number of women were allegedly raped by the police, although human rights groups said most of them did not report the cases.

The statistics from police indicated that at least 221 people were convicted in Bulawayo, with three of them being minors sentenced to receive strokes for participating in the demonstration.

The Zanu (PF) stronghold of Masvingo – politically captured by Mr Mnangagwa, was apparently the only province which enjoyed peace during both the three-day protests and their aftermath, as no-one was arrested.

Mnangagwa’s home province of Midlands has so far had six people convicted for participating in the protests, while the two Matabeleland provinces had three cases apiece.

According to the police, eight people were sentenced to seven years in jail across the country and Mashonaland East had five of those, followed by Harare which had two and then Midlands with one. From the statistics, 12 were spared from jail by the courts that issued suspended sentences.

At the height of the protests, law enforcement agents conducted raids at MDC houses, rounding up people from safe houses and some from hospitals. This prompted hundreds of Zimbabwean lawyers to march, demanding justice for people detained and others facing fast-track trials.

The crackdown, primarily led by soldiers, were conducted at night-time on many homes, where the army forcibly removed and beat up alleged protestors. The crackdown alarmed rights groups who feared a return to the authoritarianism that characterized much of Robert Mugabe era.

Some of the leaders of the three-day strike are yet to be tried and face charges such as treason. They include the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions’ leadership of Peter Mutasa, Japhet Moyo and Pastor Evan Mawarire.

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