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Murmurs of dissent in police force
April 17, 2007

BULAWAYO - Zimbabwe's security forces have been criticised for their often-severe crackdown on opposition activists, but some policemen say they have arrested and sometimes tortured pro-democracy activists against their personal convictions.

They maintained they were forced to carry out their superiors' instructions out of fear. "Since the arrests and crackdown on the opposition started on 11 March, I have found myself having to deal with tough situations that have made me do things I would not personally and independently want to do," said a police officer who chose to be named as Zex.

Zex said he had been involved in the ongoing campaign against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, which alleged that 600 of its members had been abducted, tortured or arrested on "trumped up charges".

"I have beaten up and arrested some opposition activists in Harare [the capital], where I was transferred to recently, but each time I have done this my heart has bled because I have done it against my will," he said.

"These are simply activists advocating for change, which I also want to see take place, but because I am a police officer and there is always somebody watching my moves and dishing out commands, I am afraid I cannot resist. The consequences may be dire if I did that, perhaps more than those of the activists I have beaten up or witnessed being tortured," Zex added.

According to the MDC, two of its members have been killed by police since 11 March, when heavily armed police officers clashed with pro-democracy activists who were on their way to a prayer meeting in Harare.

Nelson Chamisa, MDC spokesman, said one activist was shot dead on the spot during the ensuing mêlée, while the other reportedly died from injuries a few days later. Several MDC officials, including Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of a faction of the splintered opposition party, were arrested and allegedly beaten up by the police while in custody.

Another police official, who also chose to remain anonymous, claimed that colleagues who had chosen to disobey orders had been tortured. "It's not an easy task to go out and refuse to go and assault MDC people when your boss says you should do that. I know of colleagues who have been severely tortured after disobeying commands from our bosses."

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena dismissed the claims. "How can we assault our own police officials?" he asked in response to claims that officials had been encouraged to beat up opposition activists.

"No one [policemen] is allowed hit anyone. There are certain instances where you have to use force: to disperse crowds, as is the practice elsewhere in the world. The act of arrest is, in itself, the use of force on an individual. They are trying to distort the facts. We have never encouraged police officers to assault members of the public," he maintained.

A police official said although security forces remained loyal to the government, most of them, especially the youth, were fed up with the current leadership and wanted to see a change of government.

''I have found myself having to deal with tough situations that have made me do things I would not personally and independently want to do''

"Disgruntlement is actually high among youthful security officers, both in the police and the army, but because our superiors are content with the situation in the country, mainly because they are well paid, there is nothing we can do," he said.

"I operate here in Bulawayo, the second city, and we have even been advised to shoot to kill should there be any overt street protests. There have actually been mixed feelings about this directive amongst the police, since it was issued ... Some are for it, especially those that are benefiting from the current government, but the poorly paid, like me, are not supportive of it. We are also itching for regime change, but we find ourselves in a much more awkward position."

Poorly paid

However, he added that other security personnel, especially those employed by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) appeared to be fully behind the ruling party and performed their duties with absolute allegiance because they were highly paid.

After a recent special salary hike for CIO personnel, the lowest-paid agent now earns US$400 a month, while policemen and soldiers take home about half that. Most ordinary Zimbabweans find surviving in a country with the world's highest annual inflation rate - more than 1,700 percent - extremely difficult.

The crackdown on pro-democracy campaigns has also had other repercussions: several police stations in various parts of the country have been petrol-bombed.

The police have blamed the MDC for the attacks but the opposition has denied any involvement, and instead have accused the government of masterminding the violence to create an excuse for cracking down on the opposition and incapacitate it ahead of next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

"We know there are good security officers out there," said Job Sikhala, the MDC's shadow defence secretary, "and some have actually quit the force, including the army, because they are not happy."

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