Catholic bishops in Zimbabwe have accused the government of carrying out human rights abuses and cracking down on dissent, prompting a swift denial by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration which described the allegations as “evil” and baseless.
In a pastoral letter read out at Catholic churches on Sunday, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference said the country was suffering from “a multi-layered crisis”, including economic collapse, deepening poverty, corruption and human rights abuses.
“Fear runs down the spine of many of our people today. The crackdown on dissent is unprecedented,” the bishops said in the strongly-worded letter.
“Is this the Zimbabwe we want? To have a different opinion does not mean to be an enemy.”
In response, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa criticised the head of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Ndlovu, and described the pastoral letter as an “evil message” meant to stoke a “Rwanda-type genocide”.
“His [Ndlovu’s] transgressions acquire a geopolitical dimension as the chief priest of the agenda of regime change that is the hallmark of the post-imperial major Western powers for the last two decades,” Mutsvangwa said in a statement.
At least 20 protesters were arrested for taking part in outlawed planned demonstrations against alleged state corruption and economic hardship on July 31. All have been charged with inciting public violence and released on bail.
Government critics and rights groups say the recent wave of arrests and alleged rights abuses are reminiscent of the heavy-handed tactics used by Mnangagwa predecessor Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years.
“Zimbabweans are witnessing unprecedented abuses that may very well be worse than witnessed under Mugabe,” Dewa Mavhinga, the Southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera last week, citing “a sharp increase in abductions, torture and sexual abuse targeting government critics and involving security forces”.
Like Mugabe, Mnangagwa says Western countries are funding the opposition to topple his government.
Mnangagwa came to power after the military removed Mugabe in November 2017. He went on to win a disputed election the following year, promising to tackle corruption and revive the country’s shattered economy.
Two years on, however, Zimbabwe is facing a severe economic crisis marked by soaring inflation, high unemployment, foreign exchange shortages and a local currency that is rapidly depreciating against the US dollar.
But the government again on Saturday denied there was a crisis, even as official statistics showed inflation soaring to almost 840 percent.
Mnangagwa has implemented policies “that result in a robust economy” and has kept the country “commendably stable”, the government said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Law Society of Zimbabwe on Sunday joined the bishops and international groups in denouncing the country’s “deteriorating human rights situation”, adding that lawyers were also under attack from government agents.
“The law society further condemns the abduction and torture of citizens across the country by state security agents and individuals allegedly unknown but aligned to the state,” it said.
The government denies the allegations.
“Nothing informs the arrest of suspected criminals in our country other than the commission of a crime. Anyone who is arrested in Zimbabwe will have charges levelled against him or her, and all the cases are speedily taken to court,” government spokesman Nick Mangwana told Al Jazeera earlier this month.
“As far as we are concerned, no opposing voices have been stifled in Zimbabwe.”