Yvonne Musarurwa smiles, saying NO! to the tyrants of Zimbabwe

On Monday, in Harare, Yvonne Musarurwa and two comrades were sentenced to twenty years in prison. Photos show Yvonne Musarurwa immediately after the sentencing, and she’s smiling, perhaps laughing. As it was in Hades and then Algeria, so in Zimbabwe today, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a woman’s heart. One must imagine Yvonne Musarurwa happy.”

In 2011, 29 MDC-T supporters were arrested on suspicion of having killed a police officer. In 2013, 21 were acquitted because of lack of evidence. There was no evidence, and yet they remained behind bars, in Chikurubi, some for more than two years. The High Court Judge Chinembiri Bhunu took great pains to discuss the case of human rights activist Cynthia Manjoro. Manjoro had been released on bail in 2012, after a State witness testified that Manjoro had been arrested “as bait” to lure her boyfriend into a trap. Cynthia Manjoro spent May 2011 to October 2012 in prison. That left eight in the hellhole of Chikurubi. In August 2013, Rebecca Mafukeni died … or was killed. Rebecca Mafukeni had meningitis, she was clearly deteriorating quickly when the judge repeatedly refused bail and all appeals for medical attention were rejected.

Yvonne Musarurwa was with Rebecca Mafukeni in Chikurubi Prison and recalled the ordeal: “The first weeks in police custody were the toughest. We were being interrogated, beaten and tortured. I’ve never felt so much pain in life before. I sustained a broken hand; lacerations all over the body and the only thing I got for all that were a few tablets of paracetamol. They said we were MDC and that there was every chance we would influence the other prisoners and clash with others from ZANU PF. This is why they kept us in solitary confinement. The conditions though were very bad. We stayed in cells that had raw sewage passing through and we cleaned that up using our bare hands. That was the most difficult part and I told myself the day Zimbabwe is free from tyranny, I will personally go to the Minister of Justice and those in charge of prisons to tell them exactly what needs to be done.”

That was 2013. This week, three years later, Yvonne Musarurwa, Tungamirai Madzokere, and Last Maengahama were sentenced to 20 years, despite eyewitnesses stating in court that the three were innocent, despite a complete lack of evidence, despite video evidence that Last Maengahama was in a church miles away when the officer was killed. According to Beatrice Mtetwa, who leads the defense team, the three were convicted based on the doctrine of common purpose, an archaic doctrine by which one may be found guilty of another’s crime. The State went to great lengths to convict Yvonne Musarurwa and her colleagues.

Yvonne Musarurwa is 29 years old. She has spent the last five years in the clutches of the State for a crime she never committed. How many more years until Yvonne Musarurwa, and the rest of Zimbabwe, are freed from prison for a crime they never committed? In Zimbabwe, the State is the crime. For now we must continue to imagine, and see, Yvonne Musarurwa smiling, knowing exactly what needs to be done.

(Photo Credit 1: Nehanda Radio) (Photo Credit 2: Nehanda Radio)

In Zimbabwe, women activists are not surprised by the abduction of Itai Dzamara

In Harare on Monday, Itai Dzamara – journalist, pro-democracy activist, leader of “Occupy Africa Unity Square”, and a real pain for Robert Mugabe – was kidnapped, in broad daylight. On Tuesday, Dzamara’s wife, Sheffra Dzamara, went to the High Court and filed an urgent habeas corpus. Today, the High Court ordered the State to “search” for Dzamara. Talk about the fox guarding the chickens.

Reporting on this incident, and reporting on Zimbabwe more generally, suggests that State-sponsored violence has significantly reduced since the dark days of the 2008 elections. Jestina Mukoko, National Director of the National Peace Project, and Beatrice Mtetwa, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, would tell it differently. In 2008, Jestina Mukoko was abducted by State agents, and held and tortured for three months. Beatrice Mtetwa has also been a guest of the State, for having committed the crime of asking the whereabouts of one of her clients.

But that was then, and this is now. Right?

In an International Women’s Day celebration honoring Mbuya Felistas Chinyuku, a staunch anti-eviction women’s rights and human rights activist and organizer since 1991, Beatrice Mtetwa noted that in the past 24 months, 1390 local women human rights defenders had been arrested. The women activists’ crimes generally involved staging street protests or petitioning and litigating government with the aim of pressing for political, social and economic rights.

Beatrice Mtetwa explained, “When these women were arrested they were trying to assert their rights as women first and foremost and as citizens of Zimbabwe.” Jestina Mukoko added, “I do not know why the state thinks that we will be fighting against them. We do not intend to fight against the state but to remind them that we are people whose rights are being violated. But by just reminding them to recognize and respect people’s rights you will find yourself in jail.”

Beatrice Mtetwa and Jestina Mukoko made those remarks last Friday, three days before Itai Dzamara was kidnapped. Activists, and just plain folk, in Zimbabwe are worried and rattled by the abduction of Itai Dzamara, but they are not surprised. They have been struggling for the past two years with all varieties of disappearance, for the crime of being women and of being citizens. #BringItaiHome

(Image Credit: Twitter)

Rosemary Margaret Khumalo died last month

Rosemary Margaret Khumalo, affectionately known as Makhumalo, died last month: “Rosemary Margaret Khumalo died on death row on the 15th of July at Chikurubi Maximum Prison before the Constitutional application to set aside her death sentence could be heard by the Constitutional Court.” Khumalo, 59-years-old, had spent the last 15 years on death row.

Human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa commented, “Being on death row for an unduly long period is a violation of one’s rights. I do not know why she was on death row for such a long period time. Either someone did not know what they were doing or they did not want to execute her. It is a blow on the justice system of Zimbabwe.”

Chiedza Simbo, director of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA), said, “It is with immense sadness that ZWLA celebrates the role Rosemary Margaret Khumalo played in defending the rights of women embodied in the new Constitution of Zimbabwe,”

Rita Nyamupinga, Director of Female Prisoners Support Trust (Femprist) reflected: “Makhumalo was so brave even after being sentenced to death she could smile and share her story without any reservation. She used to say ‘I am telling you because this place is not good, wanzvaka? (you hear?) with a Ndebele accent. She was in there from 1999 when she was sentenced to death for murder. All she wished for was to be released if they could not hang her. She said she had repented but could not bear the torture any longer. She was so prayerful, at times we would fail to pray but she would encourage us to soldier on … Every time we parted she would remind us not to take long before visiting her. At times we would take our time because of the after effects of the previous visit. In February 2014 after the Presidential Amnesty we all thought Makhumalo was eventually going but it was never to be.”

In many ways, Makhumalo’s story is typical of death penalty countries. Sentenced to death, she then waited, often in solitary isolation, for the hangman to come. He never did. The reasons for her long stay are unclear. On one hand, Zimbabwe is a de facto death penalty abolitionist country, largely due to the inability to find someone to actually conduct the executions. On a different, but not opposite, hand, the vast majority of those on death row are poor. As Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe chairperson Virginia Muwanigwa noted: “We want the death penalty to be removed from our constitution and our laws completely. One important reason for this is that it is mostly poor people who often get hanged.”

As in Zimbabwe, so in the United States and elsewhere. A recent US court ruling found that the main cause for death row delays is the State’s foot-dragging and underfunding of its indigent defense system.

But Rosemary Khumalo’s story has a twist. Last year, Zimbabwe passed a new Constitution, which exempts women, men under 21, and everyone over 70 from the death penalty. The new Constitution also does away with mandatory sentencing. For Khumalo and Shylet Sibanda, the only other woman on death row, this seemed promising. They appealed to courts and were denied their appeal because of lack of “urgency.” Khumalo appealed directly to the Presidency, on five occasions, and was rejected twice, and didn’t hear back on three other occasions.

Her lawyers argued from the basis of human and Constitutional rights and due process. Rosemary Khumalo pleaded as a woman, as a human being. She did not say she was innocent. She said she had repented. Those around her confirmed the substance of that claim.

Rosemary Khumalo was so close to release and so very far from freedom. In her last years, she lived with dignity, which is hard won in the killing conditions of Chikurubi. The years were hard, but the real story is not the long years. It’s death row: “‘I am telling you because this place is not good, wanzvaka? (you hear?).” Remember: this place is not good. Remember Rosemary Margaret Khumala, affectionately known as Makhumalo.

(Photo Credit: Nehanda Radio)

Rebecca Mafukeni, citizen of the Republic of Chikurubi


Rebecca Mafukeni died last month, in remand in Zimbabwe’s `notorious’ Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. She had meningitis. Her bail application was denied. Her appeals for medication attention were rejected, and so Rebecca Mafukeni died … or was killed.

Mafukeni was one of 29 MDC-T supporters who were arrested two years ago, in 2011, on suspicion of having killed a police officer. Last week, 21 were acquitted because of lack of evidence. There was no evidence, and yet they remained behind bars, in Chikurubi, some for more than two years. The High Court Judge Chinembiri Bhunu took great pains to discuss the case of human rights activist Cynthia Manjoro. Manjoro had been released on bail in 2012, after a State witness testified that Manjoro had only been arrested “as bait” to lure her boyfriend into a trap. Whatever the plan was, Manjoro spent May 2011 to October 2012 in prison.

Yvonne Musarurwa had been with Rebecca Mafukeni in Chikurubi. She has described the experience as a nightmare, especially the months long period held in complete solitary confinement, under a `no human contact’ order. During that period, they thought they were Zimbabwe’s “most isolated women.”

This is the story of women’s lives, and deaths, in the Republic of Chikurubi. Chikurubi is one of those prisons that give notorious a bad name. It is the house of beatings, intimidation, sexual violence, and degradation. It is a place in which people are meant to rot, literally. It is a women’s prison where violence against women extends from overcrowding to refusal to dispense sanitary pads to direct sexual violence to torture to continual abuse and threats to isolation. It is a place that aims to destroy people, individuals, families, communities. In Chikurubi, the personal is political, and the politics is death.

Ask Jestina Mukoko. Ask Beatrice Mtetwa. Ask Violet Mupfuranhehwe. Ask Jennie Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu. Ask Cynthia Manjoro. They’ll tell you. Ask Yvonne Musarurwa. She’ll tell you: “During the first few weeks, we couldn’t cope with living in prison. Rebecca and I broke down completely. We thought we were going to die. But slowly, when we realized there were people who have been there many years before us, the condemned prisoners, we thought okay, we might make it as well.”

We might make it as well. Rest in peace, Rebecca Mafukeni. The struggle continues. We might make it as well.

(Photo credit: Newsday)

Beatrice Mtetwa is the course of justice

Beatrice Mtetwa, leading human rights lawyer and Board member of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, recently noted, “People who go to do things under the cover of darkness are afraid of light. So, if you come at midnight, I’ll be there with my headlights glaring.”

The smoke, fog and dust of Zimbabwe’s Constitutional referendum had not yet dissipated or settled when the news circulated that Beatrice Mtetwa had been arrested. Her crime was asking the whereabouts of a client. The State refers to that as “obstructing or defeating the course of justice.” The truth is that Beatrice Mtetwa is the actual course of justice.

Mtetwa is a fearless and tireless defender of human and civil rights and a remarkably persistent proponent of the law as an instrument of change, in Zimbabwe and everywhere. Some call that `the rule of law’, but it’s more than that. It’s the rule of transformation, of always struggling to become more fully human.

Mtetwa has consistently, openly and formally challenged police, judges, even fellow lawyers to act according to oaths and promises taken. After being beaten by police, in 2003, the moment Mtetwa sufficiently regained her capacities, she went straight to the police station, and to the very police who had injured her, and filed charges. When she defended Jestina Mukoko, she did more than protest Mukoko’s innocence. Again, she filed charges against the State. Each time, Mtetwa understood that the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, if it heard the case, would find against her. And each time she said, history will be the judge … not these corrupt men and women who sit on a high bench and act despicably.

She has asked, repeatedly, what is law in a nation-State in which the Constitution has been mutilated? What is freedom in a nation-State built on ever deepening cycles of violence and ever multiplying and intensifying violations of persons and communities, and especially those of women? For example, according to Mtetwa, during the 2006 round of pogroms, “The most brutal assault against opposition activists occurred on 11 March, when members of the Women’s League were attacked, some of them with batons, as they attempted to attend a prayer meeting organised by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign. The League’s president and secretary-general were among the injured, and there were many reports of injuries such as broken limbs, torn ears and severe bruises.”

Maybe something good, or at least not altogether bad, will come of Saturday’s referendum. Maybe Presidential powers will be curtailed. Maybe women will have more presence in matters of State. Maybe.

But the real referendum is taking place in the prisons and police stations, where people are being held without charges or with trumped up charges. Where people have been abused and tortured in so many ways, there sits Beatrice Mtetwa, and she says, “I’ll keep trying, and I’m not going to stop.” `Releasing’ Beatrice Mtetwa into yet another cycle of violence is not enough. The State is guilty of obstructing and defeating the course of justice, not Beatrice Mtetwa. Who’s afraid of the light? Not Beatrice Mtetwa. Shine the light; make sure it’s glaring.


(Video Credit: Vimeo)