JOHANNESBURG – Amnesty International criticized the Zimbabwean authorities’ arrest of several human-rights activists who took part in protests Friday against state corruption.
“The thwarting of the protest illustrates the Zimbabwean authorities’ total intolerance of criticism,” Muleya Mwananyanda, the human rights organization’s deputy director for southern Africa, said in an emailed statement. He described the arrests as a “witch hunt.”
Several shops and gas stations were open on Saturday in the capital, Harare, but many businesses were still closed and few people were on the streets. Traffic was sparse on all major roads leading into the city, with heavily armed soldiers and police manning roadblocks.
Previous protests, including those that took place in January 2019, turned violent with retail outlets looted by protesters.
The authorities issued a warning to citizens against participating in the demonstrations. President Emmerson Mnangagwa labeled the protest plans an “insurrection” meant to overthrow his administration, which is presiding over inflation of 737%, food and fuel shortages and a collapsing local currency that’s led to demands by teachers, bankers and health-care workers to be paid in U.S. dollars.
There were arrests of some protesters, including that of novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga and Fadzayi Mahere, a spokeswoman for the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change. They were charged with inciting public violence and breaching a public health order before being released on bail Saturday, and are scheduled to appear in the Harare Magistrate’s Court on Sept. 17.
“The state is at war with its citizens,” Mahere’s lawyer, Chris Mhike, said by phone. “The right to protest peacefully against corruption and the national crisis in a safe, socially distant manner has been criminalized.”
Another six people were detained in Harare, according to a statement on Twitter by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. Those arrested were scheduled to appear in court Saturday.
The authorities have said lockdown regulations to curb the spread of the coronavirus prohibit mass gatherings. The southern African nation has 3,169 cases and 67 deaths from Covid-19 as of July 31, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Zimbabwean authorities must stop using Covid-19 as a pretext for restricting human rights. Peaceful protest is not a crime, and the motivations for crushing this demonstration are plain to see,” Amnesty said.