Zimbabwe is constitutionally a republic. The country elected Emmerson Mnangagwa president for a five-year term in 2018 in general elections. Despite incremental improvements from past elections, domestic and international observers noted serious concerns and called for further reforms to meet regional and international standards for democratic elections. Numerous factors contributed to a flawed election process in 2018, including: the Zimbabwe Election Commission’s lack of independence; heavily biased state media favoring the ruling party; voter intimidation; unconstitutional influence of tribal leaders; disenfranchisement of alien and diaspora voters; failure to provide a preliminary voters roll in electronic format; politicization of food aid; security services’ excessive use of force; and lack of precision and transparency concerning the release of election results. The election resulted in the formation of a government led by the ruling party with a supermajority in the National Assembly but not in the Senate.
The Zimbabwe Republic Police maintains internal security. The police and the Department of Immigration, both under the Ministry of Home Affairs, are primarily responsible for migration and border enforcement. Although police fall under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Office of the President may direct the police to respond to civil unrest. The Zimbabwe National Army and Air Force constitute the Zimbabwe Defense Forces and report to the minister of defense. The military is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. The Central Intelligence Organization, under the Office of the President, engages in both internal and external security matters. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. There were credible reports that members of the police, military, and intelligence service committed abuses throughout the country.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings of civilians by security forces; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention by security forces; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious political interference that undermined judicial independence; serious government restrictions on free expression, press, civil society, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; widespread acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including crimes involving violence or threats of violence against women and girls; and laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although generally not enforced.
Impunity remained a problem. The government took very few steps to identify or investigate officials who committed human rights abuses or acts of corruption and did not systematically arrest or prosecute such persons.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. There were reports of police shooting civilians while enforcing COVID-19 lockdown measures.
There were no new reports of long-term disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. In 2018 the High Court ordered the government to provide updates on the 2015 disappearance of democracy activist Itai Dzamara, but officials failed to do so, without consequence. There were no reports of authorities punishing any perpetrators of previous acts of disappearance.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; however, there were reports that police, civilian intelligence, and military intelligence officers engaged in such practices with impunity. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported security forces abducted, assaulted, and tortured citizens in custody, including targeted assaults on and torture of civil society activists, labor leaders, opposition members, and other perceived opponents of the government. Throughout the year police used excessive force in apprehending, detaining, and interrogating criminal suspects, including the use of torture while in police custody. Police and military officers used violence to enforce COVID-19 lockdown measures, to disperse peaceful demonstrations, and to disrupt informal trading.
Impunity for politically motivated violence remained a problem. The government did not establish an independent complaints mechanism to investigate allegations of security force misconduct as called for in the constitution. Investigations into violence from previous years remained pending, including into state-sponsored violence that resulted in the deaths of 17 civilians in 2019 and seven civilians in postelection violence in 2018. As of year’s end, there were no arrests or charges in those cases. During the year a court awarded minor damages to one individual injured by a stray bullet in 2018. The respondents, however, were appealing the case. Other cases remained pending.
Human rights groups reported government agents perpetrated physical and psychological torture on labor leaders and opposition party members in recent years, including sexual assault; beating victims with sticks, clubs, cables, gun butts, and heavy whips (sjamboks); falanga (beating the soles of the feet); forced consumption of human excrement; oral chemical poisoning; and pouring corrosive substances on exposed skin. On November 29, Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency CEO Doug Munatsi died in a house fire. Several media outlets reported that his remains showed signs of torture. Police indicated they would investigate the fire as possible arson. Various newspaper and social media sources, suspecting foul play, called for swift and transparent investigations into the cause of death.
During government-mandated lockdowns due to COVID-19, uniformed and plainclothes soldiers and police officers used clubs to beat civilians in the Harare central business district and suburbs for violating curfews, failure to wear masks, or failure to exercise social distancing. NGOs reported police officers assaulted, raped, and arrested with impunity residents who crossed into the poorly demarcated Marange diamond mines.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces and among the civilian authorities who oversee them, including police, military, and intelligence officers. Security forces were firmly under the control of the ruling party and were often directed against the political opposition.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and life-threatening due to overcrowding, food shortages, lack of water, physical mistreatment of prisoners, lack of access to personal protective equipment to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
Prison guards occasionally beat and abused prisoners. NGOs reported the use of excessive force but noted prison guards did not employ excessive force systematically. There were reports in September that prodemocracy activist Makomborero Haruzivishe was repeatedly strangled in his sleep by fellow inmates at Harare Central Prison, although he survived.
Physical Conditions: Conditions in prisons, jails, and detention centers were harsh. While some prisons operated below capacity, NGOs reported most were overcrowded due to outdated infrastructure and judicial backlogs.
The Zimbabwe Prison and Correctional Services (ZPCS), responsible for maintaining prisons, prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration into society, did not provide adequate food, water, sanitary conditions, or personal protective equipment during the global pandemic. The ZPCS sometimes allowed faith-based and community organizations to help address these problems.
Detainees depended on family members for essential dietary needs. Those without family or community support were forced to rely on other detainees for survival, although in recent years prisoners identified as malnourished have received additional meals. If available at all, blankets and clothing were often unwashed and soiled. Lice were a common problem. Although detainees could be transported to hospitals for medical treatment, unsanitary conditions and cold winters led to severe and sometimes fatal medical conditions. Detainees who were denied bail were often held in severely overcrowded remand cells for multiple years while awaiting trial.
were an estimated 2.4 percent of all prisoners. Authorities held women in separate prison wings and provided female guards. The several dozen children younger than age four living with their incarcerated mothers shared their mothers’ food allocation, rather than receiving their own. Female inmates reported violence and sexual abuse. Despite support from NGOs, prison distribution of menstrual hygiene supplies was limited. Women often lacked access to pre- and postnatal care and emergency obstetric services. Officials did not provide pregnant women and nursing mothers with additional care or food rations out of the ZPCS budget, but the ZPCS solicited and received donations from NGOs and donors for additional provisions.
There was one juvenile prison, housing boys only. Girls were held together with women. Authorities also held boys in adult prisons throughout the country while in remand. Officials generally tried to place younger boys in separate cells, but NGOs reported older prisoners often physically assaulted the younger boys. Although the law stipulates juveniles should be sent to reformatory homes, authorities generally sent juveniles to prison as there was only one adequate reformatory home in the country, located in the Harare suburbs. Juveniles were vulnerable to abuse by prison officials and other prisoners. In June the ZPCS opened a female prison for 30 inmates in Marondera that permits home visits to see minor children after serving half of a prison sentence. ZPCS stated this prison would accommodate up to 500 inmates at full capacity.
Prisoners with mental health issues were often held with other prisoners until a doctor was available to make an assessment. Psychiatric sections were available at some prisons for these individuals but offered little specialized care.
According to the ZPCS, remand prisons were overcrowded. Authorities often held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners until their bail hearings. Due to fuel shortages, the ZPCS was at times unable to transport pretrial detainees to court hearings, resulting in delayed trials and longer detentions. While an estimated 4,200 prisoners were released under an amnesty program in March and April 2020 to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in prisons, NGOs, contacts, and several news outlets reported some remand prisons had 70 persons to a cell in August 2020. In April the ZPCS Harare province commander announced another amnesty release of 400 of an estimated 22,000 prisoners. Inmates at remand prisons were not tested before admittance but instead were tested only when sent to nonremand prisons.
Although hurt by the economic downturn associated with COVID-19, NGOs helped provide prisoners with disinfectant, personal protective equipment, and information about the virus. The economic downturn shuttered small, community-based NGOs that once supported prisoners. These organizations had steady streams of outside and community-based donations but suspended operations due to a lack of funding caused by the country’s protracted economic crisis.
The ZPCS ignored requests from medical personnel to isolate journalist Hopewell Chin’ono when he exhibited COVID-19 symptoms while incarcerated in August 2020 (see section 2.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
According to NGOs, food shortages were widespread in prisons but not life threatening. The harvest of prison farm products provided meals for prisoners. Protein was in short supply, particularly meat. Prisoners’ access to clean water varied by prison. NGOs worked with prisons to provide enhanced water collection systems.
Diarrhea was prevalent in most prisons. Diseases such as measles, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS-related illnesses were highest in those with the poorest conditions. Lighting and ventilation were inadequate. There were insufficient mattresses, blankets, warm clothing, sanitary supplies, and hygiene products.
Prisoners had access to very basic medical care, with a clinic and doctor at nearly every prison. In partnership with NGOs, the ZPCS offered peer education on HIV/AIDS. The ZPCS tested prisoners for HIV only when requested by prisoners or prison doctors. Due to outdated regulations and a lack of specialized medical personnel and medications, prisoners suffered from routine but treatable medical conditions such as hypertension, tuberculosis, diabetes, asthma, and respiratory diseases. The ZPCS was at times unable to transport prisoners with emergency medical needs to local hospitals.
Administration: The ZPCS inspections and audit unit, charged with assessing prison conditions and improving monitoring of prisoners’ rights, did not release the results of its assessments. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) conducted monitoring visits when conditions allowed. There was no prison ombudsman.
Independent Monitoring: The law provides international human rights monitors the right to visit prisons. Church groups and NGOs seeking to provide humanitarian assistance, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, gained access. Some organizations working in prisons reported meetings with prisoners occurred without third parties present and with minimal restrictions, but some political prisoners reported no privacy for visits, even with their legal representatives. Monitoring missions were extremely limited during the COVID-19 lockdown.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, although other sections of the law effectively weaken these prohibitions. The government’s enforcement of security laws often conflicted with the constitution. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained persons, particularly political and civil society activists, labor leaders, street vendors, and journalists perceived as opposing the government. Security forces frequently arrested individuals during and following antigovernment protests through selective enforcement of COVID-19 protocols.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law stipulates that arrests require a warrant issued by a court or senior police officer and that police inform an arrested person of the charges before taking the individual into custody. Police did not always respect these requirements. A preliminary hearing must be held before a magistrate within 48 hours of an arrest. This was not followed consistently. According to the constitution, only a competent court may extend the period of detention.
The law provides that bail be made available for most accused persons. The government amended the law to include provisions that allow prosecutors to veto judicial bail decisions and keep accused persons in custody for up to seven days, despite a prior Constitutional Court ruling declaring this power unconstitutional. Prosecutors relied on these provisions to extend the detention of opposition leaders, civil society activists, and labor leaders, some of whom were denied bail for almost two months. In December 2020 youth activist Allan Moyo was arrested and spent 72 days in detention. He was denied bail three times before a court finally granted him bail in February.
Authorities often did not allow detainees prompt or regular access to their lawyers and often informed lawyers who attempted to visit their clients that detainees or those with authority to grant access were unavailable. The government also monitored, harassed, intimidated, and arrested human rights lawyers when they attempted to gain access to their clients. A destitute detainee may apply to the government for an attorney, but only for capital offenses. Some opposition party members, civil society activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens had limited or no access to their legal counsel.
Arbitrary Arrest: The government regularly used arbitrary arrest and detention as tools of intimidation and harassment, especially against political activists, civil society members, journalists, attorneys, and ordinary citizens asserting their rights. The government commonly used COVID-19 lockdown restrictions to arrest individuals perceived as threats against the government.
In April police arrested an opposition youth leader, Obey Sithole, for alleged criminal nuisance after holding a peaceful demonstration. He was released on bail after four weeks in detention. Police and media reported that security forces arrested political and civil society activists, journalists, labor leaders, and ordinary citizens for their alleged violation of COVID-19 lockdown measures or alleged involvement in planned demonstrations in Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare, and other cities.
Police selectively enforced COVID-19 safety regulations against opposition parties, civil society, and street vendors while making only modest interventions to prevent ruling party supporters from engaging in rallies and attending large gatherings. Human rights NGOs reported street vendors in urban areas were often targets of arbitrary arrest and allegations of operating illegal businesses. The law absolves individual security agents from criminal liability regarding unlawful arrests and detention. Police officers routinely argued they merely followed orders in conducting arrests and were not responsible for compensating victims of unlawful arrests.
Pretrial Detention: Although the constitution provides for the right to bail for detained suspects, prolonged pretrial detention for government critics, including journalists, ordinary citizens, student activists, and opposition leaders, was common. The government routinely opposed bail for political detainees, and judges generally upheld these motions. Cases involving human rights defenders also involved lengthy pretrial detentions. When judges issued bail rulings, they often delayed announcing their rulings until after the court cashier closed on Fridays to ensure political detainees remained in prison over the weekend. Delays in pretrial procedures were common, however, due to a shortage of magistrates and court interpreters, poor bureaucratic procedures, and an insufficient number of court officials to hear many cases.
Other prisoners remained in prison because they could not afford to pay bail. Magistrates rarely exercised the “free bail option” that authorizes them to waive bail for destitute prisoners. Lawyers reported juveniles usually spent more time in pretrial detention than did adults because they could not attend court unless a parent or guardian accompanied them. Sometimes their parents could not be located or did not have the funds to travel to court. Authorities occasionally did not notify parents of a juvenile’s arrest or the closest kin of an adult detainee’s arrest.
Defendants commonly faced prolonged pretrial detention as well as unnecessary hurdles that inconvenience and humiliate the defendant. After being arrested on May 26, New York Times journalist Jeffrey Moyo’s bail check-ins were moved from Harare to Bulawayo, which made compliance more difficult for him and his Harare-based lawyer. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the defendant had to travel in a separate vehicle from his lawyer, increasing the cost of his defense.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the government intensified executive influence over the courts and executive interference in court decisions. In May the government amended the constitution to give the president authority to appoint senior justices without public interviews and extend the term of the chief justice beyond the mandatory retirement age stipulated in the original constitution. Prior to the amendment’s passage, Supreme and High Court judges issued an anonymous letter expressing concerns regarding the chief justice’s interference in their judgments. Many viewed the chief justice as biased in favor of the ruling party, citing his ruling against the leading opposition party when it challenged the results of the 2018 general election. In September the Constitutional Court overturned a High Court decision that would have blocked the extension. As a result the chief justice was to remain head of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts for another five years until his 75th birthday, well beyond the general election scheduled for 2023. Although the constitution includes safeguards against changing term limits for incumbents, the Constitutional Court’s decision makes it easier for parliament to pass additional constitutional amendments to extend term limits for other key positions, and the September decision further disempowers lower courts to rule on constitutional matters, setting a precedent that their rulings cannot be enforced until reviewed by the Constitutional Court.
At times the judiciary demonstrated its independence despite intense pressure to conform to government directives. The government, however, often dismissed justices who resisted executive pressure. In June the president fired High Court Justice Erica Ndewere for “gross incompetence” after she refused to take instructions to deny bail to an opposition politician.
The government often refused to abide by judicial decisions and routinely delayed payment of court costs or judgments awarded against it in civil cases.
Judicial corruption was widespread. NGOs reported senior government officials gave homes, farms, agricultural machinery, and other perks to numerous judges as part of its corrupt Command Agriculture program.
NGOs reported that the president of the High Court often routed cases involving human rights defenders to specific anticorruption magistrates in the lower courts even if the cases were unrelated to corruption. Legal experts claimed defendants in politically sensitive cases were less likely to receive a fair hearing from magistrates, who heard most cases, than from higher courts. In lower courts justices were more likely to make politicized decisions due to the use of threats and intimidation to force magistrates to rule in the government’s favor, particularly in rural areas. In politically charged cases, other judicial officers such as prosecutors and private attorneys also faced pressure from high-ranking judges and officials of the ruling party, including harassment and intimidation.
Certain high court justices made seemingly independent rulings and granted opposition party members and civil society activists’ bail. Some observers, however, believed the decisions in those cases were motivated by ruling party infighting rather than judicial independence.
There were reports that judges or magistrates failed to recuse themselves from politically charged cases. In July the deputy chief justice and numerous Supreme Court and Constitutional Court judges refused to recuse themselves from proceedings involving the chief justice despite having been directly supervised by him. In September a Harare magistrate refused to recuse herself from a case involving a high-profile journalist and human rights activist after making earlier statements insinuating the defendant’s guilt.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary interference with privacy, family, or home, but local NGOs reported the government did not respect this right. Throughout the year government officials pressured local chiefs and ZANU-PF loyalists to monitor and report on persons suspected of supporting political parties other than ZANU-PF.
The law permits intercepting or monitoring any communication (including telephone, postal mail, email, and internet traffic) transmitted through a telecommunication, postal, or other system in the country. Civil liberties advocates claimed the government used the law to stifle freedom of speech and target political and civil society activists (see section 2.a.).
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption; however, the government did not implement the law effectively or impartially. Despite government pronouncements, there were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. Experts described the problem as “catch and release,” where the government arrested some corrupt officials, often those out of favor, without ever convicting them.
Corruption: Corruption in both the public and private sectors persisted and was highly institutionalized. The country continued to experience both petty and grand corruption, defined respectively by Transparency International Zimbabwe as an “everyday abuse of entrusted power by low- to mid-level public officials” such as by police and local officials and “an abuse of high-level power by political elites.” Although the country had established specialized anticorruption courts in all 10 provinces by December 2020, challenges persisted: perceptions of political interference, delays in concluding high-profile cases, and a low quality of investigations. Additionally, the anticorruption courts often displayed political bias and were assigned cases involving activists, journalists, or opposition leaders even though the cases did not relate to corruption. Independent governmental oversight entities were often constrained politically or lacked sufficient funding and staffing to carry out their mandates. In September 2020 the ZHRC, Zimbabwe Gender Commission, and National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) signed an agreement to collaborate on joint investigations and strengthen their oversight capacities. The government responded with budget cuts and did not implement most of the commissions’ recommendations.
The constitution mandates the Zimbabwe Anticorruption Commission (ZACC) conduct corruption investigations. In 2019 President Mnangagwa appointed nine new commissioners to the ZACC and gave the commission the power to arrest. ZACC does not, however, have the power to prosecute. Concerns remained that the government’s anticorruption efforts were highly politicized and that ZACC targeted high-profile officials who had fallen out of favor with President Mnangagwa.
The country’s COVID-19 response was marred by corruption. In June 2020 President Mnangagwa fired Health and Child Care Minister Obadiah Moyo for corruptly awarding a multimillion-dollar contract overpaying for COVID-19 equipment. Moyo was released on bail within one day and acquitted by the High Court in October.
Despite Deputy Health Minister John Mangwiro’s role in steering a tender to a firm that offered inflated prices in 2020, he remained in his position as of November.
According to Home Affairs Minister Kazembe, the country was losing U.S. $100 million monthly to gold smuggling. In October 2020 security officials at Harare International Airport arrested Henrietta Rushwaya, a relative of President Mnangagwa, when she attempted to smuggle approximately U.S. $300,000 worth of gold to Dubai. Despite receiving wide publicity at the time, Rushwaya avoided conviction and was reinstated as the president of the Zimbabwe Miners Federation. In May the South African Revenue Service arrested a Zimbabwean man trying to smuggle U.S. $780,000 worth of gold into South Africa. As of November the investigation had not concluded.
Corruption also permeated the government’s Command Agriculture program and other agricultural programs such as the President’s Input Scheme. ZACC reported multiple cases of groups corruptly benefiting from these programs. In February 2020 the ZACC raided a syndicate that ran a warehouse that sold repackaged government-provided inputs intended for farmers.
ZANU-PF benefactor Kudakwashe Tagwirei was placed under foreign sanctions for corruptly profiting from misappropriation of property when his company, Sakunda Holdings, redeemed government treasury bills at 10 times their official value. This resulted in a rapid depreciation of the Zimbabwe dollar and a corresponding increase in prices of goods to the public. Following his designation as a sanctioned individual, Tagwirei transferred most of his assets into Kuvimba Mining House Ltd. (Kuvimba), a newly formed entity of which the government purportedly owns 65 percent. Kuvimba has since acquired multiple mines from private owners struggling to stay afloat due to Zimbabwe’s difficult business environment.
In June the Auditor General’s report for 2020 was released. The report exposed poorly managed accounting records, diversion of public funds for unintended purposes, payments for undelivered goods, and failure to follow procurement procedures. The report also noted that most ministries failed to comply with the government’s own Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act, as ministries did not have written documentation to justify their decisions for choosing sole suppliers for most direct purchases of goods and services, thereby opening room for corrupt officials to exploit the system. The Auditor General also reported U.S. $445 million of accounts receivable that remained outstanding for extended periods, making their collectability doubtful.
In September the NGO Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development launched a viral billboard and social media campaign highlighting specific corruption scandals and the social cost of gold smuggling. The government promptly responded, attacking the campaign and the coalition as “rogue.” The coalition received multiple threats, and three billboards were burned or defaced in Bindura and Harare. In October the Hwange Colliery Company pulled down a billboard discussing the Zambezi Water Project and threatened coalition staff. One report suggested involvement by Central Intelligence Organization officials in removing the billboards.