By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – A 10-year-old girl knocked out by tear gas from a grenade thrown into her home. A disabled boy beaten and left unconscious at a bus-stop. A 17-year-old set upon by six police dogs.
The list of cases recorded by a trauma clinic is detailed and varied – men, women and children whose only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Zimbabwean police cracked down on a rare outbreak of dissent this month against President Robert Mugabe.
“Torture, Torture, Torture, Intimidation, Torture, Torture, Intimidation, Assaulted, Torture…”, reads one column of the spreadsheet prepared by the clinic, which was seen by Reuters.
The violence occurred during a “stay-away” inspired by Evan Mawarire, a 39-year-old preacher, whose call for workers to stay home in protest against corruption and economic decline amounts to the biggest challenge to Mugabe’s rule in nearly a decade.
Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba and information minister Chris Mushowe did not answer their mobile phones or reply to text messages requesting comment on the allegations of abuse.
The clinic that prepared the spreadsheet redacted the names and ID numbers of victims. Officials from the clinic asked that it not be identified for fear of reprisals, and Reuters was not able to confirm the individual incidents directly.
But Frances Morris, a doctor who treated some of the victims, said the injuries included broken arms and hands, and were indicative of “savage” treatment.
The victims, she said, were mainly civilians who were not involved in protests, even though the injuries were of a severity that the clinic normally confronts only among participants of riots.
“The dog bite injuries reflect the use of uncontrolled dogs,” she said.
In a July 11 Twitter post, former information minister Jonathan Moyo, a leading Mugabe defender, accused the anti-government protest movement inspired by Mawarire of fomenting violence.
“In Germany when you want to kill dogs you cause rabies. In Zimbabwe when you want to grab power unconstitutionally you cause social unrest!” Moyo said.
Mawarire, who says he promotes only peaceful protest, was arrested on Tuesday but released a day later when a magistrate threw out charges of attempting to overthrow the state, an offense that carries up to 20 years in jail.
A warrant seen by Reuters for a police raid on his home accused him of having a stolen police helmet and other “subversive material” used to incite unrest on July 6, the day of the “stay-away” protest.
As Mawarire appeared in court on Wednesday, dozens of riot police backed by armored vehicles and water cannon took up position outside the building.
BATONS, DOG BITES
Television footage and pictures this month from the southern African country have shown baton-wielding riot police taking on groups of young men in restive Harare townships.
In one incident described in the clinic’s spreadsheet, three riot police assaulted a mother of a newborn in her home in Epworth, a Harare township well-known as a hotbed of opposition to Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party.
“When my child started crying my husband opened the door and was manhandled by the police and they took him away,” the 24-year-old woman recounted.
“I tried to ask them why they were taking away my husband. They started beating me with baton sticks all over the body. I told them I had an operation – I had a caesarian section. The police said they were having a much more important operation than mine.”
In another, a 17-year-old boy who had left home to collect his school examination results was set upon by riot police and beaten with truncheons and fists before being held for two nights at Harare’s central police station.
Another 17-year-old was accosted by six riot police with dogs at his home. “They commanded their dogs to bite me and two others,” the boy said.
Photographs provided by the clinic and dated July 14 showed one dog-bite victim lying in a hospital bed with flesh wounds on his left lower leg. The largest wound was 10 cm across.
Beatrice Mtetwa, Zimbabwe’s top human rights lawyer, said she would be raising the issue of police brutality when those arrested in the crackdown next appeared in court on July 28. She did not yet have full details of the incidents, she said.
“We are still in the process of collating that information and deciding which one of the persons who are in court have also been treated by the medical facility,” Mtetwa told Reuters.
On Tuesday, Interior Minister Ignatius Chombo said police would be out in full force to prevent any repeat of last week’s Mawarire-inspired “stay away”.
“We have sufficient contingent of police to deal with the issue. There is no need for the army. This is their daily bread and they will deal with any eventuality,” Chombo said.
“PRAY FOR ZIMBABWE”
Zimbabwe has a history of violence against opponents of Mugabe, the only president the country has known since independence from Britain in 1980.
In 2008, after hundreds of his supporters were beaten up, then-opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of an election run-off against Mugabe to prevent anybody being killed.
A year earlier, Tsvangirai himself was beaten after being arrested on his way to a Harare prayer rally. When he emerged from custody, his face was severely swollen and he had deep gashes in his head.
Edward Chikombo, a freelance cameraman who obtained pictures of Tsvangirai’s injuries, was later abducted from his Harare home. His body was found a week later.
Mindful of such events, father-of-two Mawarire had pre-recorded a video to be released should he disappear. Within minutes of his arrest this week, his supporters put it out.
“You are watching this video because I have either been arrested or I have been abducted,” he said in the grainy clip posted under his #ThisFlag Twitter hashtag.
“Maybe we shall see each other again. Maybe we shall never see each other again. And maybe we succeeded, or maybe we failed. Whatever the case, you and I have stood to build Zimbabwe,” he continued. “Remember to pray for Zimbabwe.”
(Reporting by Ed Cropley; editing by Peter Graff)