Small groups of protesters have defied a massive police and military presence on the streets of Zimbabwe, triggering a wave of arrests by authorities who sought to crush a planned day of anti-government demonstrations.
Among those arrested for protesting on Friday was the acclaimed Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga, just three days after she was longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize for her latest novel.
Many other journalists, activists and opposition politicians have been arrested in recent days as the government attempted to prevent Friday’s planned protests against state corruption.
Thousands of police and soldiers were deployed across the country, preventing ordinary Zimbabweans from reaching the central districts of cities where the protests had been planned.
Photos and videos from Zimbabwe on Friday showed that most downtown streets were eerily empty, except for large numbers of police and security forces, including some in armoured vehicles. Previous protests in 2018 and 2019 had been violently broken up by security forces.
With the economy deteriorating, inflation soaring, health workers on strike and shortages of many essential goods worsening, Zimbabwe’s authorities have been worried about growing discontent in the streets. There are also reports of divisions within the ruling ZANU-PF party and its allies, sparking more political tensions in the country, less than three years after President Emmerson Mnangagwa ascended to power after a military coup.
Because of the huge presence of security forces in the central business districts of the main cities, Zimbabweans tried to hold their protests on a smaller scale in quiet back streets or suburban areas. Some held one-person protests by walking with placards or flags. But these, too, were quickly crushed by the police.
Perhaps the most shocking of the arrests on Friday was that of Ms. Dangarembga, the award-winning writer. This week she was named a longlist finalist for the Booker Prize for her latest novel, This Mournable Body. She won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Africa region in 1989 for an earlier novel, Nervous Conditions, which was later named by the BBC as one of the top 100 stories that shaped the world.
On Friday, Ms. Dangarembga and a friend were carrying placards that called for the release of investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who was arrested last week after he had voiced support for the anti-corruption protests.
The French news agency AFP said one of its photographers saw the two women “bundled into a truck full of police armed with AK-47 rifles and riot gear.”
The novelist live-tweeted her arrest, posting a photo of herself and her friend in a police station in Harare, the capital city.
“If you want your suffering to end, you have to act,” she said in a tweet just a few hours before her arrest. “Action comes from hope. This principle of faith and action.”
Later, after her arrest, she tweeted a video of a military helicopter flying over a Harare suburb. “Who is at war against whom?” she asked.
Henry Chivhanga, a disability rights activist who has a physical handicap, limped slowly down a road in the city of Masvingo with a banner reading: “Corruption has destroyed livelihoods.” His one-man protest ended when the police detained him and charged him with “loitering,” according to his Twitter account.
The authorities cited the COVID-19 pandemic as one reason for its banning of Friday’s protests, but many of those arrested were wearing face masks and practising physical distancing.
One of the arrested activists was Fadzayi Mahere, a constitutional lawyer and a spokesperson for the opposition MDC Alliance. Before her arrest, she posted photos of herself and several other people on a suburban street, carrying placards, wearing face masks and maintaining distance from each other.
“It was completely peaceful,” she tweeted before her arrest. “We all observed social distancing. Section 59 of the Constitution guarantees the right to demonstrate and present petitions peacefully. We want a free Zimbabwe.”
In one of the strangest arrests on Friday, police detained three activists and their lawyer as they were driving to a Harare police station to fulfill the terms of their bail conditions. The activists, who were abducted and tortured by masked assailants in May, were later arrested and accused of faking their stories, despite medical evidence of their abuse.
Six opposition leaders have been arrested in recent days, while several activists have gone into hiding after police published a list of people who are wanted for questioning in connection with the planned protests, Amnesty International said on Friday.
“The brutal assault on political activists and human rights defenders who have had the courage to call out alleged corruption and demand accountability from their government is intensifying,” said a statement by Muleya Mwananyanda, the Amnesty deputy director for Southern Africa. “The persecution of these activists is a blatant abuse of the criminal justice system and a mockery of justice.”
Piers Pigou, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the Zimbabwean government will claim victory because it was able to prevent mass protests. But it expended huge costs to fight what could be a “phantom” threat, and its actions transformed the protests into a “stay away” movement that was able to shut down shops and other businesses, he tweeted on Friday.
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