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Protesters take on Mugabe's thugs
Christina Lamb, Sunday Times (UK)
September 23, 2007

A Harare taxi driver, Tafadzwa Nyatsanga, was negotiating fares with passengers outside an agricultural show when a policeman arrived and demanded to be taken somewhere for a fare of just Z$50,000, about 10p.

When Nyatsanga refused, pointing out that other people had been queuing for hours, the officer, Michael Masamwi, began beating and punching him, whacking him round the head with his truncheon.

There was nothing unusual about this in the Zimbabwe of President Robert Mugabe. But then something strange happened. Someone from the crowd stepped forward and told the officer that what he was doing constituted "a human rights abuse" and he should stop.

Masamwi laughed and hit him too. The man again told him that what he was doing was wrong as there were hundreds of people waiting. This time the crowd joined in, turning on the policeman and beating him.

The officer called in riot police. They dispersed the crowd violently and arrested the taxi driver, who is still in jail two weeks later. A few days after the incident, however, Masamwi received a legal summons. Then last week about 500 people gathered outside his police station to demonstrate. This protest was also broken up by riot police and 11 people were arrested, but the demonstrators returned the next day.

Such unprecedented public action is the result of a new movement that has been launched in Zimbabwe to try to end police brutality by naming and shaming the most violent officers and taking them to court.

Restoration of Human Rights is the brainchild of two Zimbabweans, one white, one black, who were living in Britain.

Until a few months ago Justin Shaw-Gray, 33, was in Godalming working in IT sales; Stendrick Zvorwadza, 38, was a business studies teacher at a college in Bradford. But the two men were so shocked at the repression in their homeland that they decided to give up their jobs and do something.

"We're saying enough is enough of police brutality," said Shaw-Gray. "We felt you might not be able to get rid of Mugabe, but we could make people aware of their rights and how to act.

"It seemed to us there were plenty of human rights organisations documenting abuses, but none actually doing anything about it."

Using their savings and contributions from friends, they have spent the past two months meeting district leaders and recruiting members. This is no easy task, given Zimbabwe's notorious public order laws that require police licences for gatherings of more than five people.

The pair have been arrested several times. "My mum is so scared she can't sleep at nights," Shaw-Gray said. Yet so far they have signed up more than 15,000 people.

"We tell people if you stand up alone you're at risk; if five of you stand up, you're at risk, But if we stand up in our thousands, they can't do anything," said Zvorwadza.

"There are around 45,000 police, of which maybe 5,000 are bad guys. The rest want to do their job. What we want to do is start weeding them out and naming them so they can no longer hide behind the cloak of the system and will be living in fear."

The plan is to hold demonstrations outside offending officers' homes and workplaces, and to sue them, working with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

On one occasion last month the two men were driving with three colleagues to donate footballs at a match in Gutu, south of Harare, at which they hoped to spread their message.

Police roadblocks had been set up to prevent people travelling to a memorial service for a leading member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). About 15 miles from the match venue, they were stopped as the game had not been approved by police.

"We explained that we were a nonpolitical group working with orphans and children, but they refused to let us go on," said Shaw-Gray.

Loveness Matapura, the district police chief, then arrived. She called in armed riot police who surrounded the men and pointed guns against their heads while others searched the car.

"All they found were footballs," said Zvorwadza. "We told them this is an abuse of our human rights, but they replied that if we attempted to go on we would be shot."

After two hours the men were allowed to go, but only if they returned to Harare. The following Sunday they took out a full-page advertisement in the Standard newspaper, recounting the incident and explaining that they were taking Matapura to court.

"We know where she lives. If she does not respond to the summons we will hold mass peaceful demonstrations outside her house, preventing her from leaving," said Shaw-Gray.

When asked about the risks, he said: "Zimbabwe has the lowest life expectancy in the world and people are starving. We're explaining to people if you don't stand up you'll be dead anyway in six months, 12 months, maybe
18 months, because the economic situation is so bad. You must stand up or you'll die."

Inflation is estimated by bankers to be about 13,000% and a military-imposed campaign of price controls has left nothing on the shelves. As the economic crisis grows, police brutality, long a feature of the Mugabe regime, has worsened.

In a typical incident nine days ago, police descended on Nyaradzo funeral home in Harare and prevented a service taking place for 24-year-old Memory Jenaguri. Her home had been destroyed in Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out the Filth), a government demolition campaign that began in 2005, and she had been living in the open for the past two years until dying of hunger. The police arrested all 60 mourners.

More such repression is expected in the run-up to next year's parliamentary elections.

Some wonder if the government will make it that far. A report published last week by the International Crisis Group described Zimbabwe as "closer than ever to complete collapse".

It stated: "Four out of five of the country's 12m people live below the poverty line and a quarter have fled."

David Coltart, an MDC MP from Bulawayo, said: "There might not be blood in the streets, but people are just falling off the edge everywhere. Pensioners, orphans, child-headed families are literally starving."

Few see any likelihood of a Ukraine-style uprising. "It's like asking people in intensive care, why aren't you protesting," said Coltart.

Pointing out that there are no guards on the Zimbabwe side of the border, he believes the regime is encouraging people to flee. "Mugabe knows every person who crosses the border is one less vote against him."

Coltart welcomed Gordon Brown's stance in threatening to boycott the EU-Africa summit if Mugabe is invited. "If Mugabe is allowed, he will think Europe has lost its resolve. It will encourage him to run for office again."

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