Riot police in Zimbabwe‘s capital, Harare, have fired tear gas and beaten demonstrators during a crackdown on opposition supporters who have taken to the streets despite a ban on protests.
Scores of people gathered in Africa Unity Square to demonstrate against a worsening economic situation in defiance of the ban, which was upheld by a court on Friday.
Supporters of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) sang songs condemning the police brutality as officers fired tear gas to disperse them.
Police also cornered a group of protesters and beat them with batons, with one woman being carried into a Red Cross ambulance.
“This is worse than during colonial times,” said a man who declined to be identified.
“We aren’t armed but the police just beat us while we were sitting on the street,” he told the AFP news agency.
Dozens of police and three water cannon were involved in running street battles with protesters in the square, which overlooks the country’s parliament and is where thousands gathered in November 2017 to call for then-president Robert Mugabe to step down. Following a military-led coup, Emmerson Mnangagwa took over and went on to win disputed presidential elections in 2018.
Friday’s protests went ahead after opposition plans for large-scale marches were banned by the police late on Thursday.
An MDC attempt to challenge the ban in court was then rejected.
“The court has said the demonstration should be off,” MDC spokesman Nkululeko Sibando told AFP.
The party’s Vice President Tendai Biti told reporters outside the high court that “we differ respectfully with the ruling”.
“The fascist regime has denied the right for Zimbabweans to demonstrate,” Biti said.
“There is no difference between Mnangagwa and Mugabe. We jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the November coup”.
Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from Harare, said police had said they did not want the protests to go ahead as they had received information that some of the demonstrators were armed and that rocks were stashed in some parts of the city to be used as weapons.
The opposition denied this, saying the protests were peaceful.
The scenes in Zimbabwe today demonstrate how far the authorities will go to repress dissent. Baton-wielding police unleashed a brutal assault on protesters, who had gathered to protest the socio-economic conditions which are causing suffering to so many. https://t.co/jU1q3wj6VU
— Amnesty International (@amnesty) August 16, 2019
Five million face ‘starvation’
Upon taking office, Mnangagwa had vowed to revive Zimbabwe’s economy, but people in the country say things have gone from bad to worse amid shortages of basic goods and skyrocketing prices.
Around five million people – almost a third of the country’s population – required aid and at least half of them were on the cusp of “starvation”, the World Food Programme (WFP) said this month.
Armed police had put up barricades around the city early on Friday in a bid to deter protesters, turning back cars on streets leading to the MDC’s party headquarters.
Long queues of traffic formed as the police searched cars and commuter buses for weapons. Riot police also searched pedestrians.
At least six opposition and rights activists were abducted and tortured by unidentified assailants in the days leading up to the protest, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of 21 human rights groups.
Friday’s protests were the first since rallies in January against Mnangagwa’s decision to raise fuel prices ended in deadly clashes with troops.
At least 17 people were killed and scores wounded after the army used force, including live ammunition, to end the demonstrations.
We are deeply concerned by the socio-economic crisis that continues to unfold in #Zimbabwe. We urge the Government to find ways to engage with protestors, and to refrain from the use of violence. https://t.co/3P8fGMFAZ5 #StandUp4HumanRights pic.twitter.com/O8CVCEgoFO
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) August 16, 2019