Harare, Zimbabwe – As Misheck Nyembe stepped into a meeting of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) in the high-density residential area of Budiriro on January 14, he saw three armoured police trucks and 30 baton-wielding anti-riot policemen milling around outside.
It was a strange sight because the gathering was at the home of a CCC lawmaker, but Nyembe, 72, a staunch supporter of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, was unperturbed because it was not his first meeting.
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“I didn’t make much of the police’s presence,” he told Al Jazeera at his home in Budiriro, an opposition stronghold in Harare. “I felt I had a right to be there.”
He had barely sat down when a group of baton-wielding police officers charged through the gate, triggering pandemonium.
Outside, policemen sprayed tear gas. One grabbed Nyembe and shoved him into a truck. Many opposition supporters managed to scale a security wall and escape, but Nyembe and 25 others were not so fortunate.
They ended up spending 13 days in detention at Harare’s Remand Prison until lawyers from the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum secured their release on bail.
A series of arrests
It was the latest in a series of arrests in Zimbabwe as critics accuse President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration of clamping down on dissent and rights of assembly.
“There is generally a growing shrinking of civic and political space evidenced by the increasing violence against the opposition as well as arrests,” political analyst Rashwit Mukundu told Al Jazeera.
Several opposition figures and government critics have either been arrested or jailed without trial in recent months. Opposition parties say since the start of 2022, almost 100 of their supporters have been arrested and spent periods in detention without any trials. The charges have ranged from committing political violence to illegally convening meetings.
The dismembered body of Moreblessing Ali, a CCC stalwart, was found in June, two weeks after she had been abducted. Pius Mukandi Jamba, a well-known ruling party supporter, admitted to the killing and is in jail.
At Ali’s funeral, violence broke out between supporters of the ruling party and the opposition.
On July 9, police arrested 36 people, including leaders of the newly formed Zimbabwe Transformative Party, at a prayer meeting in Harare. They were accused of gathering without police permission. Most were freed after more than three months in detention, but the party’s leader, Parere Kunyenzura, spent almost 200 days in custody.
Job Sikhala, the CCC’s deputy chairperson and a member of parliament, has been in jail since June after being accused of inciting violence. His trial began in January.
Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was jailed from July to September for what the state said was “incitement to participate in a gathering with intent to promote public violence, breaches of peace or bigotry”.
In 2021, another journalist, Jeffrey Moyo, was detained for 21 days when he was accused of obtaining fake press credentials for two New York Times journalists who were in Zimbabwe for a reporting trip the previous year.
The presidential election is due to be held in July. The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980. Its candidate is Mnangagwa, who toppled Zimbabwe’s founding leader, Robert Mugabe, in a 2017 coup.
The 80-year-old is seeking a second five-year term, but the opposition, led by the CCC’s Nelson Chamisa, who is almost half his age, is confident of victory.
Zimbabwe’s floundering economy has been a thorny issue ahead of the vote, but so have the arrests of opposition supporters who hold what police say are “illegal gatherings”.
Political parties must seek police clearance at least two weeks before an event. Security agencies have refused permission for many opposition gatherings, saying there is no manpower to police the events.
According to Chamisa, the police have barred 68 of his party’s meetings in recent weeks.
The opposition accuses the police of being partisan and under the control of the ruling party, but ZANU-PF spokesperson Chris Mutsvanga said the party is a “private voluntary entity, … not the government of Zimbabwe”.
“Instead there is an executive, a judiciary and a legislature,” he told Al Jazeera. “The ZRP [police] answers to these constitutional bodies, definitely not to ZANU-PF.”
Tafadzwa Mugwadi, another ruling party stalwart, said his party remains popular and did not need help from state institutions like the police or electoral commission.
“The fake agenda about reforms is being fronted by the CCC and its puppet masters in the EU and US who want to find a smokescreen to justify continued illegal sanctions on Zimbabwe beyond 2023,” Mugwadi said.
‘Selective application of the law’
Analysts said concerns are growing about the shrinking democratic space in Zimbabwe.
Musa Kika – executive director of Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of 22 human rights advocacy groups – told Al Jazeera that bans on opposition gatherings are a “time-tested strategy” to instil fear in the opposition.
“[It is] a cycle that repeats itself every election year,” he said. “This is obviously abuse of the criminal justice system and abuse of the constitution that provides rights to a fair trial, etc.”
He and other activists said there has been a “selective application of the law” because the opposition has been barred from holding events while the ruling party has faced little or no obstruction.
In January, authorities revoked the registration of 291 non-governmental groups and civil society organizations for “noncompliance with the provisions of [the] Private Voluntary Organization Act”.
Government critics said that violates the freedom of association enshrined in international human rights laws to which Zimbabwe is a party, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
“Zimbabwe’s repression of civil society organizations needs to stop, especially in light of the general election this year,” said Ashwanee Budoo-Scholtz, the deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to stop using the Private Voluntary Organization Act as a tool to silence the exercise of fundamental democratic rights.”
For Nyembe, who is nursing a back injury he received when he was arrested, this was not his first experience of political-related violence. He was part of Zimbabwe’s independence struggle in the 1970s, and he remains determined to vote in the coming election.
“I want a better future for my children,” he said. “My youngest daughter could not find a job, and she had to go to South Africa.”