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Monday, 29 May 2006

Under Siege: Zimbabwe's Human Rights Defenders; Jenni Williams

Earlier this month, security agents in Zimbabwe told Jenni Williams that if she continues to organize demonstrations she is going to pay for it with her life.

Williams received the threat upon being released from jail. She and 165 other WOZA activists had been arrested for demonstrating against a hike in public school fees.

"Jenni Williams complained that the officer in charge of the law and order section, Detective Assistant Inspector Ndlovu, threatened her with death should she ever engage in similar conduct in future," said Kossam Ncube, a lawyer from Job Sibanda and Associates who represents Williams and WOZA (ZimOnline, May 16, 2006).

They were all released five days later because prosecutors would not take them to court.

Williams and the women who make up Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), have organized and taken part in more protest marches than any other group in Zimbabwe.

They have also had more experience of the callousness, heavy-handedness, and brutality with which security agents in Zimbabwe deal with perceived opponents of President Robert Mugabe's regime.

WOZA members have endured severe beatings at the hands of the police. They have had police dogs set on them. They have been detained for hours, and sometimes days, in over-crowded and lice-ridden cells where the communal toilets do not flush. While in detention, the women have been threatened, assaulted, and deprived of food and access to lawyers by the police.

Williams said WOZA was founded to give Zimbabwean women a voice and platform with which to exercise their rights.

"Things are very tough economically, socially, politically and we felt that women were bearing the brunt of that crisis and should have the loudest voice in shouting out … and holding the political leaders accountable for what they've unleashed," Williams said.

Williams maintains that to her and other WOZA activists, the arrests are a symbol, a potent reminder that exercising one's fundamental rights can carry serious risk.

WOZA activist Patricia Tshabalala

©2003 Jenni Williams
She describes WOZA activists as "volunteers for arrest and possible beatings."

In February 2003, Williams and WOZA organized a Valentine's Day march to protest against political violence and draw attention to the worsening economic situation. Women marched through the streets of Bulawayo and Harare handing out red roses.

In both cities, police descended on the women, broke up the marches, and arrested and detained protestors under the provisions of the repressive Public Order and Security Act (POSA).

POSA gives police sweeping powers, which they have used to harass, intimidate, and detain real and perceived opponents of the Mugabe regime.

Since 2002, security agents have used POSA to target human rights activists and to restrict rights to freedom of association and expression.

The police used POSA again in November 2003. They arrested Williams in Bulawayo for taking part in a demonstration organized by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

"My WOZA colleagues insisted that they would accompany me to be arrested and invited the huge crowd of upwards 1,000 to come along too, which they did!" Williams writes in an open letter available on Kubatana.net.

When they got to the station, the police released Williams because the crowd that had been following them had become agitated.

A few minutes later, three vehicles and more than a hundred riot police confronted the protestors and ordered them to disperse.

"The officer with the megaphone told his troops to advance and dogs were brought out. They advanced and people began to walk away calmly but the officer ordered us to be beaten. Riot police prodded us in the back saying we should disperse, the officer egged them on, and they started to prod us telling us to run. We answered back saying we would not run as the dogs would bite us. Run we were told and beaten until some of us ran and of course the dogs bit several people."

Several WOZA activists and campaigners sustained serious injuries from the beatings they received at the hands of the police. Others were hospitalized after being mauled by police dogs.

More than 4,000 members of WOZA have been arrested under POSA and related laws since 2003. None has been successfully prosecuted.

Despite the frequent arrests and the equally frequent beatings meted out by the police, Williams and WOZA continue to organize peaceful demonstrations, regularly taking to the streets in Harare, Bulawayo, and other parts of the country.

Williams was nominated for this year's Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

In their citation, the organizers of the award said Williams was chosen because she "continues to organize and lead peaceful protests against the erosion of human rights, in spite of having been arrested and beaten by the police."

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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