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Police officers and soldiers manning a road block during the lockdown. Image by Nkosizile Ndlovu
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the central government deployed police and soldiers to man check-points on major roads across the country. In most cases, civilians were ill-treated. The State’s proclivity to human rights violations played a significant part.
HWANGE (The Citizen Bulletin) — Timothy Shoko walks towards a police officer who seems to be in charge of the roadblock. His intention is to explain to the man in uniform that he wants to visit his mother in the rural area where she is ill. The officer refers to him to a gun-carrying soldier by the side of the road. After a brief talk Shoko is ordered to sit down, joining about half a dozen people seated under a tree. He spent the whole day there.
“It was a clear violation of my rights,” Shoko says as he narrates his ordeal.
“My mother was not in the hospital or clinic that I could have provided any evidence of his illness. I am her only child living nearby but I was denied permission to visit her because I did not have a letter authorizing me to travel.”
Members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police and the Zimbabwe National Army were tasked with monitoring and enforcing COVID-19 lockdowns across the country. Travelers were required to produce exemption letters from their employers or local police authorizing them to travel.
“To worsen the situation, we were exposed to the disease. There was no social distancing among the suspects. When we tried to social-distance, we were ordered to sit close to each other. It was absolute harassment.”
Shoko recalls that, on the fateful day many people had been arrested for traveling without letters. But at sunset, there were only five people left and the law enforcement agents dismissed them after threatening them with violence.
Harassment of people was also fuelled by rumors that those detained by the police would be forced to be vaccinated. With vaccination hesitancy among the people, those caught were easily lured into corrupt activities to the detriment of the justice system and the efforts to fight COVID-19.
Local activists say issues of police officers and soldiers taking bribes were rampant. Luckson Mpala, a second year student at a local university says without a relative or personal friend within the security establishments one had to part with US$10-00 to get an exemption letter from the police.
Police officers and soldiers were accused of taking bribes to allow people's movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image by Unsplash
“I was delayed to the examination despite showing the officers my examination timetable. I had to tell them that my father was a policeman so that they let me go without paying a bribe,” recalls Mpala.
At the height of COVID-19 induced lockdowns, Hwange faced a critical shortage of mealie meal and supermarkets invited police and soldiers to control the queues. “There are many girls which were sexually abused that time, just to feed their families. The issue of bribes was the order of the day in the queues. Without a bribe there was no chance to buy a mealie-meal in the designated shops around Hwange,” saysYusuf Banda, a resident.
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Amnesty International says the human rights situation in Zimbabwe continued to deteriorate, with the government demonstrating hostility to human rights defenders and the general populace during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) says the Public Health Order gazetted by the government to contain and treat the COVID-19 virus was largely punitive as it violated the rights of the citizens.
In 2021, the ZPP in its sixth edition of the COVID-19 Accountability Tracker said the government paid more attention to what was not allowed while ignoring the livelihood needs of the majority who had been affected by the pandemic-induced lockdown for months.
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