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Freedom House condemns crackdown on peaceful WOZA protest

(Freedom House/IFEX) - Washington - September 21, 2011- Freedom House condemns today's arrest of members of Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) during a peaceful demonstration and strongly condemns the continued crackdown on freedom of expression and other basic human rights by Zimbabwean authorities. Freedom House is concerned that those arrested face imminent danger of abuse and torture in prison and calls for their immediate release.

The demonstration, which took place in the Mhlahlandlela government complex, was to commemorate the International Day of Peace. WOZA was distributing leaflets and flowers when they were interrupted by nearly 50 riot police, who rounded up the group and beat them with batons, claiming they had "no permission" to march. Police arrested 12 women, according to a lawyer from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, including WOZA leaders Jenni Williams and Magadonga Mahlangu. WOZA has been a frequent and brutal target of Zimbabwean authorities as a result of their legitimate activities that address many of the most crucial human rights issues facing Zimbabwean women, including domestic violence and rape, the rights to food and education for children, and the rights to participation and association. The group has called for police to follow standards set out in the Police Act and has fought against corruption in parliament as well as sued the co-Ministers of Home Affairs over inhumane conditions in the Harare Central Police Station.

"The horrific use of violence by police against peaceful demonstrators on a day intended to bring about peace is an unacceptable violation of the fundamental human rights of Zimbabweans, including freedom of speech and assembly. Freedom House is particularly concerned that ZANU-PF will follow through on threats to place these women in male prison wards," said Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy at Freedom House. "Freedom House calls for the immediate release of all twelve women, and for the Zimbabwean authorities to halt its targeted assault on WOZA and like-minded organizations."

State-sponsored political violence in Zimbabwe is a serious and chronic problem. Independent activists, politicians, and supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) continue to suffer from harassment, assault, and arbitrary detention by security forces and militias aligned with ZANU-PF. The nongovernmental sector in Zimbabwe is vibrant and resolute, but nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have faced increasing legal restrictions and extralegal harassment. In February 2011, 46 academics, students, and other onlookers were arrested, detained and tortured for allegedly planning a revolt against the government while watching a video of street demonstrations in Cairo. At a recent workshop for youth on politics, ZANU-PF militants ransacked the meeting and prevented U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Charles Ray, from addressing those assembled.

Zimbabwe is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2011, Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties, and Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2011.

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