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"Informal curfew" imposed, say rights workers
February 27, 2007
HARARE - An "informal curfew" has been imposed on the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. According to human rights groups and analysts it is designed to check any public unrest against the government.

"The situation is very tense. If you are not in your home by 9 or 10 in the evening you can be beaten up," alleged John Makumbe, a political analyst based in Harare. "Even during the day, civilians spotted walking near the government buildings in groups of three or more are asked to disperse by the police."

Tension has been mounting in Zimbabwe over the past few weeks: nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), church groups, workers, and students have all staged sporadic demonstrations around the country, prompted by annual inflation running at nearly 1,600 percent, shortages of foreign currency and food, and pay that has consistently lagged well behind soaring prices.

Doctors and nurses have been on a strike for more than a month, demanding better salaries and working conditions. "There is a lot of anger and it is definitely linked to the economic crisis," said Makumbe. "The doctors and nurses are still on strike; the teachers are back at work, but are unhappy."

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, claimed that several teachers had been attacked by anti-riot police in the city centre and suburbs of Harare.

Mike Davies, chairman of the Combined Harare Residents Association, condemned the "informal curfew". "We have not seen an official announcement about the so-called curfew, but we have heard about people being kicked out of pubs and ordered to go home. We want to know under what law they are doing that, and for how long this is going to go on, because we believe in the rights of association and freedom of movement."

Last week, police announced a three-month ban on all public demonstrations and rallies to stem "possible political violence", said Wayne Bvudzijena, police spokesman.

The ban followed skirmishes between police and supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) attending the party's presidential campaign launch in the Highfields township of Harare last week. The police had refused to sanction the rally, claiming they did not have enough officers to ensure security.

In terms of the country's strict Public Order and Security Act (POSA), police have to be informed of any public meeting. NGOs and IRIN correspondents reported that police could be seen patrolling the capital's suburbs this week.

Bvudzijena denied that any curfew was in place in Harare. "Everybody is free to go where they like at any time. We have only put a ban on demonstrations and rallies to check violence. If we put a curfew in place we will make a public announcement."

Robert Dabengwa, who owns a nightclub in one of the townships, alleged that members of the police and military had been ordering his clients out of the club, and "[anyone] seen ... outside are beaten up or ordered to go home ... in such a highly inflationary environment I can not afford to lose so many customers."

Highfields, the scene of the street battles between the police and MDC supporters, has been hardest hit. Musa Size, a resident, claimed he was beaten up by police last Friday when he got home from town after 8 p.m.

"We were six ... when we started walking into Highfields, we were ordered to stop by soldiers and members of the police. They accused us of planning to topple the government by secretly organising MDC meetings. We denied the charges but they beat us up and ordered us to roll on the ground before telling us to crawl away on all fours." Size sustained injuries to his knees and arms.

In Kuwadzana, another Harare township, a fruit and vegetable vendor told IRIN she was lucky to have escaped a beating when armed police on patrol last week told vendors to keep off the streets after 7 p.m. She claimed the police had confiscated their goods before beating up her fellow vendors for unknowingly breaking the "curfew".

"Selling fruit and vegetables was my only way of making a living," said Sarudzai. "A lot of people without refrigerators in the townships were my regular customers. The evenings were the best times for business."

Other Kuwadzana residents also claimed to have had an evening brush with the law. "Last week I went into a pub for a beer to while away the time because it was raining heavily, but police on patrol told us to walk home in the heavy deluge," said Tobias Chindengu. "Now most of us are aware of the curfew, and we make a point of rushing home after work and remain indoors for fear of being punished by the police."

The US government and the Human Rights Institute of the UK-based International Bar Association (IBA) have condemned the three-month ban on political rallies and protests. They called on the Zimbabwean government to respect the "rule of law" and allow the people to exercise their political rights.

"The government of Zimbabwe has again undermined the guarantees of human rights and the rule of law by preventing the citizens of Zimbabwe from exercising their fundamental right to free assembly," said Mark Ellis, IBA's executive director.

Washington also lashed out at the "suppression" of MDC rallies saying, "Zimbabwe's political and economic crises can only be resolved through dialogue with the political opposition, with Zimbabwe's civil society and with the people of Zimbabwe, who have made clear their desire for democratic change."

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