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Pro-democracy protestors commend police for non-violence
December 13, 2006

JOHANNESBURG - More than 300 protesting Zimbabweans were arrested on Tuesday, but as they braced for a repeat of the police crackdown at a similar gathering two weeks ago, the group was unexpectedly and quietly released.

Over 800 members of Women Of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) and Men Of Zimbabwe Arise (MOZA) marched on Parliament in the capital, Harare, to launch the 'People's Charter', a declaration of political and economic rights, but were met by riot police as they approached the parliament buildings and held.

"We intend to launch the charter in every city across the country in the coming months," Jenni Williams, WOZA's national coordinator, told IRIN.

Carrying signs calling for Parliamentary and Presidential elections to be held in 2008, WOZA and MOZA members from all over Zimbabwe, including the second city, Bulawayo, in Matabeleland North Province; Mutare, on the Mozambican border in the eastern province of Manicaland; Chegutu in Mashonaland West Province; Gweru in Midlands Province, and some rural areas, marched along Harare's streets handing out copies of the charter, which calls on the state to provide affordable housing, education and healthcare.

According to a statement released by WOZA, police surrounded the demonstrators as they sat peacefully in front of the parliament buildings for more than an hour, "whilst riot and uniformed police were seen conferencing and seemed to be in a dilemma as to what to do with the group."

Protestors feared the police would again turn violent: WOZA organised a march two weeks ago in Bulawayo to bring attention to the charter, but a crackdown by police brought the protest to an abrupt end. The demonstrators were allegedly beaten and six were taken to a public hospital in need of medical attention, including a woman who reportedly had her leg broken.

This time the marchers were happily surprised when the police let them off with a warning. "After being warned that they were demonstrating illegally, and that they were not allowed to walk or even sit like they were doing, the group was dispersed and asked to go home," the women's group said.

WOZA interpreted the mild police action as a success, saying, "The reaction of the Zimbabwe Republic Police today was a victory for WOZA's nonviolent strategy and for the power of social justice," and commended the police for "showing that they are human beings also requiring social justice in their lives."

Since its formation in 2003, members of the women's rights organisation have repeatedly been arrested for taking part in peaceful demonstrations to protest the worsening social, economic and human rights situation in Zimbabwe. Unemployment levels have risen above 70 percent, annual inflation is around 1,000 percent, and there are chronic shortages of foreign currency, fuel and basic commodities. The government blames sanctions imposed by the West for its economic woes.

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