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Stayaway call answered by police threats
April 02, 2007

HARARE - Scores of residents in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, were beaten up by uniformed members of the Zimbabwe National Army and forced to go to work on Tuesday, the start of a two-day stayaway called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in protest against deteriorating living standards.

An IRIN correspondent witnessed soldiers beating residents in Epworth, a poor working-class suburb east of Harare. Some residents were seen trying to convince the uniformed men that they could not go to work because they were not formally employed.

Police spokesman assistant commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena said members of the elite National Reaction Force had been deployed across the country "to ensure people can report to work, but [they have to do it] in [a] peace[ful manner]. We will investigate these claims".

Police were on high alert on the first day of the stayaway. Truckloads of armed police and soldiers patrolled city and township streets. In a further display of force, military helicopters flew low over the city.

Zimbabweans are battling with the world's highest annual inflation rate, which has reached more than 1,700 percent, an unemployment rate of 80 percent and food shortages.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston, called on the Zimbabwe government to stop the use of lethal force against unarmed political activists amid the growing protest.

A statement by the Special Rapporteur on Monday said "particularly troubling" were the shooting dead of three protestors, and the deaths "of eight to 10 persons at Harare hospitals from injuries consistent with being beaten by state security agents with blunt instruments". The police have warned they would use live ammunition to stop violent political unrest.

"The government is, in effect, instructing its forces to shoot innocent people, in complete disregard for the right to life. In particular, such an approach reflects no attempt to balance the rights to political participation, and to freedom of expression and association, with any legitimate notion of the need to maintain public order," Alston said.

He said members of the security forces inflicting harm on civilians could be tried later for their crimes. "Under international law, widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population are crimes against humanity. Members of the police and military who comply with orders to gun down demonstrators will eventually be held to account."

Bvudzijena told IRIN that four people in the Dzivarasekwa township in Harare were arrested when they stoned minibus-taxis ferrying people to work.

"The arrests were made when the suspects tried to stop the transport operators from pursuing their lawful business, which is that of transporting residents. The roads in the high-density suburbs of Budiriro, Glen View and Chitungwiza [in Harare] were barricaded with boulders to prevent vehicles from moving around, but police details removed the boulders. In one incident, a government-owned Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (ZUPCO) bus was stoned in Chitungwiza but there were no serious injuries sustained."

Township residents claimed that armed soldiers and police patrolled their neighbourhoods and indiscriminately beat up residents. All pubs were shut down and residents were told to have an early night in order to report for work on time.

An IRIN correspondent travelled around the Central Business District where some banks were operating with a skeleton staff but other organisations did not open for business.

ZCTU's information officer, Last Tarabuka, told IRIN that the stayaway call had been heeded by workers and some employers. "In the industrial areas, a lot of firms did not open because the workers did not turn up."

Some workers told IRIN that they would only return for work after the Easter holidays.

The official newspaper, The Herald, reported that the Minister of Information and Publicity, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, had called on workers to ignore ZCTU's stayaway call. Ndlovu reportedly said it was irrational for ZCTU to call for a strike when the government was doing all it could to address the current economic challenges facing the country.

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