Zimbabwe Opposition Says Activists Missing, Police Deny Holding Them

Zimbabwe’s main opposition party said on Thursday three of its activists were missing a day after taking part in a protest over food shortages and police denied holding them after initially telling local media they had been arrested.

The southern African nation has a history of enforced disappearances of government opponents and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said it feared its members, including a member of parliament, had been abducted by state security agents.

Police spokesman Paul Nyathi was quoted by state-owned and private press as saying the three had been arrested for taking part in an unsanctioned demonstration on Wednesday. Nyathi could not be reached for comment.

But in a statement later on Thursday, police denied holding the MDC members in their custody and said law enforcement agents wanted to interview the activists in connection with the protest that drew a few dozen people.

That has raised fears about the whereabouts and safety of the three in a country where activists often disappear and later turn up at police stations claiming to have been tortured.

“We demand their unconditional and immediate release,” the MDC said in a statement.

The embassies of Britain, Canada and the United States and the European Union mission in Harare expressed concern via social media over the missing activists and said police should swiftly establish their whereabouts and wellbeing.

The Harare-based legal group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said it had approached the High Court on behalf of the families of the MDC activists to compel police to determine their whereabouts.

Meanwhile Amnesty International on Thursday called on authorities in Zimbabwe to urgently account for three missing female leaders from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change – Alliance (MDC-Alliance) and ensure their safe return.

“The disappearance of these political activists amounts to enforced disappearance, a crime under international law”, said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East and Southern Africa.

“Zimbabwe has a history of enforced disappearances, with some activists having gone missing for years now. Many activists have been tortured in police custody, despite denials by police. The longer these activists are in custody the higher the risk of torture,” Mwanayanda said.

The three women were part of a demonstration organized by MDC-Alliance Youth against the state’s failure to provide social protection for the poor during the current COVID-19 lockdown. As the country tries to curb the spread of the pandemic, many people are not allowed to go to work, putting them at risk of poverty, hunger and starvation.

A local non-governmental organization, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, has searched more than eight police stations to establish their whereabouts with no luck. Some sources say the trio are being held incommunicado, to pressure them to release information on how the demonstration was organized without police knowledge.

“It is deeply alarming that the state claims that it cannot account for the three activists when they were arrested at a roadblock run by both the police and the military,” said Muleya Mwananyanda.

“Authorities must urgently institute a search operation and do all within their power to ensure the safe return of these activists. There must be a full and thorough investigation into their abduction, with those suspected of criminal responsibility brought to justice in fair trials before an ordinary civilian court.”

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