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Zimbabwe women speak out against police abuse and torture
Associated Press (AP)
October 09, 2007

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa: Women activists in Zimbabwe have been beaten and forced to strip by police and detained while with their babies, according to a report alleging violations by security forces released Tuesday by one of Zimbabwe's leading civil rights organizations.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise released results of a preliminary report showing that 73 percent of an initial sample of 397 members have been arrested more than once, 40 percent were tortured and 50 percent detained longer than the allowed 48 hours. About 26 percent were injured badly enough to receive medical treatment.

WOZA, formed in 2003, has become a powerful voice in the deepening economic and political crises in Zimbabwe. It has held over 100 peaceful protests and is known for its annual Valentine's Day march in which red roses are distributed in a call for love, peace and harmony in the country.

"Women of WOZA have often been the target of unprovoked attacks," said Jenni Williams, one of the founders of the organization. Williams has been arrested about 30 times has been living in safe houses for the last three years.

International organizations such as Amnesty International as well as human rights bodies in Zimbabwe have made similar assessments that human and political rights are increasingly under attack in the country.

"These types of violations have become commonplace in Zimbabwe as the government seeks to prevent Zimbabweans from protesting against the continuing devastating mismanagement of the economy, extensive and malicious corruption and a total disregard for the well-being of Zimbabweans," Williams said. Williams was accompanied by a number of members and a few - including a 19-year-old woman - gave an emotional account of their time at the hands of police, often breaking down into tears.

Comment from Zimbabwe police was not immediately available. An official at Zimbabwe's embassy in Pretoria, who would only give his name as P.T. Chigiji, said he could not comment as he had not seen the report.

Williams said the report was done to highlight the violent conditions that still exist despite reports about progress being made in talks between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, appointed by the Southern African Development Community to lead the mediation efforts, said last week that the negotiations were going well that there had been agreement that the elections would be free and fair elections.

"This can only occur if the process and the political climate in which it takes places are fully free and fair. An essential component of this climate is the absence of violence," Williams said.

Mbeki has been criticized for advocating what he calls quiet diplomacy over confronting Mugabe, who is accused of overseeing his country's economic and political collapse.

Williams, who is part of a civil society group that is meeting with the team involved in the mediation efforts, said her organization was giving Mbeki "the benefit of the doubt." But she expressed concern the talks focused too much on political power and not enough on the social, economic and political rights of Zimbabweans.

"So we will continue to put pressure of the South African government so that they hear and can respond to the call of ordinary South Africans," she said.

Williams also said her organization rejected recent constitutional amendments supported by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in what was described as a show of faith in the negotiations. Critics say the changes further consolidate ZANU-PF's power.

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