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Villagers tortured over cyanide
Nkululeko Sibanda, The Financial Gazette

November 07, 2013

Villagers here are accusing government and the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe (PWMAZ) of using torture tactics to extract “confessions” from those suspected of holding onto the dangerous cyanide chemical. While the parks authority has vehemently denied the allegations, villagers in Tsholotsho say the torture tactics are reminding them of the trauma and fear they endured during the Gukurahundi era.

Hwange National Park massacre

The development comes after more than 300 elephants died in the Hwange National Park area after drinking water laced with the chemical. Suspicion in government circles is that the villagers were responsible for the lacing of water with cyanide. Several people in the area have been arrested and brought before the courts for allegedly being in possession of the deadly chemical. Some of the villagers are languishing in remand prison for allegedly being found in possession of cyanide. Villagers interviewed alleged that they were being picked up for questioning by rangers from the PWMAZ, working with security agents in the area, in the wee hours of the morning.

They claimed the interrogation was intense and at times involved the use of torture methods to force them to confess being in possession of cyanide. Those suspected to be holding on to cyanide were allegedly taken to an interrogation base inside the Hwange National Park where the inhumane acts were carried out. “When they came to pick me up on one of the days, they arrived at my house at around 0225 hours. They asked me to produce the cyanide and I told them I did not have it. They searched my home and could not find any. They ordered me to crawl on my knees to the nearest car which was 800 metres away,” one of the villagers explained to the Financial Gazette.

At the base, the villager said he and five other suspects were tortured for days on end. He alleged they were beaten under the feet using logs cut from trees in the bush.

Another villager said he was forced to squat over a smouldering fire from red hot charcoal.

“I was ordered to squat over the fire from the charcoal. I could feel blood in my testicles boiling as a result of the heat. I cried out but they would have none of it.

They only ordered me to move from the fire upon realizing that I was about to collapse,” said the villager.

“The issue is that we are being assaulted and tortured by the game rangers who are trying to force us to admit that we have the cyanide they are looking for. The unfortunate part is that there are some who had the cyanide but most of us know nothing about the it,” he added.

The PWMAZ denies receiving any such complaints.

“Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority has not received any such reports and as such cannot comment on a matter without facts,” PWMAZ spokesperson, Caroline Washaya Moyo said.

Recently, a ministerial taskforce comprising Environment, Water and Climate Minister Saviour Kasukuwere, Sydney Sekeramayi (Defence), Kembo Mohadi (Home Affairs), Ignatius Chombo (Local Government), Jonathan Moyo (Information) and Walter Mzembi (Tourism and Hospitality) ordered villagers in the area to surrender the cyanide they had in their possession to Chief Siphoso from Tsholotsho district by month-end or face arrest.

A Bulawayo-based group of lawyers, Abammeli Human Rights Lawyers Network, said it had received the reports of alleged torture of civilians in the Tsholotsho communal lands and was gathering evidence with the view to sue for damages.

“We have received the reports of the alleged torture of people in Tsholotsho,” said Advocate Lucas Nkomo, a member of the lawyers’ group.

“We are gathering evidence of what happened. Once that is done, we shall file the necessary papers with the courts,” Nkomo added.

Bulawayo Agenda, a pressure group, recently condemned the torture of villagers.

Thabani Nyoni, the executive director of the group, said government and the parks authority needed to conduct their investigations in a civil manner and refrain from using torture.

“Reports about the widespread use of cyanide are very disturbing and need to be properly handled to avert a looming ecological disaster including loss of human lives. But what is even more worrying is the alleged reaction of armed game rangers who are said to be torturing citizens suspected to be in possession of or involved in the use of cyanide,” said Nyoni.

He added: “Bulawayo Agenda calls upon responsible authorities not to use this issue as an excuse to perpetrate atrocities against the villagers but conduct professional investigations in order to put this issue to rest and prosecute offenders. Torture is an inhuman and dehumanising experience and must not in any way be used against citizens for whatever reason. In conducting their investigations, the responsible authorities must care to avoid reminding citizens of the heavy handedness that has been visited upon citizens on numerous occasions since independence.”

According to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace report released in 1988 titled Breaking the Silence; Building True Peace, villagers in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces were subjected to torture and massive beatings and killings during the Gukurahundi era.

Most of the victims were shot and killed in public executions, often after being forced to dig their own graves in front of family members and fellow villagers. Some were buried alive, while pregnant women were reportedly bayoneted with the foetus in their wombs crushed to death by slamming them against rocks. Torture methods, the report says, included electric shocks, falanga (beating under the feet) and submarine (putting a person’s head in a bucket of water). People were also suspended by their wrists, or interrogated naked.

The report also says those who were detained were kept in terrible conditions.

They were overcrowded, under-fed, could not clean themselves, and had poor bedding. In addition, they were kept within earshot of others being tortured so they could hear their screams. Tortured people would be returned covered in blood to communal cells.

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