HARARE (Reuters) - Hundreds of Zimbabwean lawyers marched on Tuesday to demand justice for people detained in jail and others facing fast-track trials after violent protests this month led to mass arrests and a brutal security crackdown.
The southern African nation has been on edge since the crackdown, during which residents and other witnesses say police and soldiers conducted night-time raids on many homes and forcibly removed and beat alleged protesters.
The main teachers’ union announced on Tuesday that its members would go on strike from next week, raising the prospect of more unrest.
Police say more than 1,000 people have been arrested since Jan. 14, when a three-day stay-at-home strike called after President Emmerson Mnangagwa raised fuel prices led to street violence and looting. Those charged have been denied bail in a violation of their rights, lawyers say.
Zimbabwe’s High Court on Tuesday ordered the release on bail of activist pastor Evan Mawarire, who was detained at a maximum security prison in Harare on subversion charges after he tweeted his support for the strike.
Mawarire, who came to prominence as a critic of former leader Robert Mugabe, faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted. He will be released on Wednesday, his lawyer said.
Pressure group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human rights (ZLHR) says the arrests and detentions, most for public order offences, have exceeded the legal system’s capacity. Lawyers have been unable to extend representation to detainees including children, they say.
Close to 50 people have been acquitted on public violence charges while an equal number have been convicted and sentenced to as many as seven years, ZLHR said, adding those found guilty did not have lawyers.
Mnangagwa last week pledged to investigate the security crackdown. On Tuesday, police said they had arrested an officer who, together with a soldier and policeman, were filmed assaulting a man in handcuffs.
The opposition has cast doubt on the president’s promises to deal with errant security forces, saying no one has yet been brought to account for the death of six people shot by the military after post-election violence last August.
A judge in the southern town of Masvingo freed an opposition lawmaker on bail, but moments later he was arrested by police on a new charge of subversion and detained, ZLHR said.
Rights groups say at least 12 people were killed during this month’s unrest. Police put the figure at three.
The country is also mired in economic crisis, and concerns are growing that frustration over that could lead to more unrest after public workers on Monday issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the government to meet their pay demands or face a strike.
On Tuesday, some of the lawyers marching through Harare carried placards emblazoned with the words: “Systemic beatings, detentions silence the rule of law” while another sign read “#No to judicial capture, #justice not politics; #no to militarization of magistracy”.
They walked from the Law Society of Zimbabwe offices to the Constitutional Court, where they presented a petition while riot police looked on.
The crackdown has alarmed rights groups who fear a return to the authoritarianism that characterized much of the Mugabe era.
The government has said the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is behind the demonstrations, something its leader Nelson Chamisa denied.
Editing by James Macharia and Janet Lawrence
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