HARARE – The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has demanded an independent, external investigation into the abduction and torture of three female activists amid fears of a police cover-up.
Harare West MP Joanna Mamombe, 27, and two other activists from the MDC’s youth assembly – Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marova – were arrested at a police roadblock near the Harare Showgrounds while returning from an anti-government protest in the suburb of Warren Park on May 13.
Police advised Mamombe to drive her grey Mercedes to the Harare Central Police Station, where the vehicle remains parked.
The three women, speaking from their hospital beds, said they were abducted from the police station by men driving in a black Toyota Wish and driven for an hour, with bags over their heads, out of Harare into the forest. They were tortured and sexually assaulted over two nights after being forced into a pit.
They were dumped near Bindura from a moving car at dawn on Friday, two days after they went missing.
Police spokesman Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi confirmed the three women’s arrest in the hours shortly after the demonstration which was not sanctioned by police, but he recanted a day later when police could not account for the women.
Mamombe’s husband, Mfundo Mlilo, told ZimLive that police – in the presence of the MDC’s lawyers – had engaged a locksmith to open the Mercedes where the three women’s phones were recovered.
The mobile phones hold vital evidence about the women’s movements on the day they disappeared.
Mlilo said: “Police now have the three phones. Joana’s is an iPhone and it keeps a map of where she has been, at what time on a particular day. I’ve heard that police want to claim that the Mercedes was only parked at the station on Saturday, but the cellphone data will easily dispel that.”
Police sources told ZimLive that there was CCTV at the main police station in Harare, fed by several cameras.
“If the CCTV is reviewed, it’s very easy to establish when the Mercedes came in, and it should also be possible to establish when this abduction vehicle arrived and left. But you get the truth from a professional police service, and I don’t think the ZRP is that at the moment,” a middle-rank police source said.
MDC leader Nelson Chamisa has called for a United Nations investigation.
The MDC’s secretary for international relations Gladys Hlatywayo wrote to Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Geneva asking for an international probe team to visit Harare and investigate the matter.
Hlatshwayo said the MDC Alliance no longer had faith in the government investigating its security services.
“This particular abduction is not isolated as the MDC Alliance has recorded 49 abductions by State agents outside the latest case since August 2019. In January 2019, 17 women were sexually assaulted by members of the military. These violations are happening with impunity as no investigations are carried out and perpetrators are not held to account,” Hlatshwayo wrote.
Western embassies in Harare have called for a full, transparent investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators, but the Zimbabwe government has claimed the abduction and torture claims are a hoax.
Tibor Nagy, the United States’ top diplomat in Africa, wrote on Twitter: “The cowardly abduction and abuse of Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marova demands a full investigation and justice.”
MDC vice president Tendai Biti said: “The regime’s attempt to deny or deflect responsibility is its pathetic DNA. It’s a regime that has cut its teeth in violence and murder. (President) Emmerson Mnangagwa in particular has been at the centre of all the extreme episodes of violence in recent history, from Gukurahundi, 2008 to the present.”
Jeremiah Bamu, the women’s lawyer, said he was yet to get “full instructions” on taking any legal action because “they are not in a physical and mental state that allows them to fully brief me on what course of action to take. The focus now is to ensure that they are in a good mental state. The focus is on their recovery.”
“It is deeply alarming that the state claims that it never had the women in custody when they were arrested at a roadblock run by both the police and the military,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International deputy director for East and Southern Africa.