- At least 350 trade union leaders and other members have been arrested during their attempt to organise a peaceful protest march in Zimbabwe today. Union leaders were arrested already before the march and heavily armed police later stopped the march altogether.
The police action began early in the morning when they arrested six leading Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) members at a meeting in a Harare hotel. In other towns and cities, arrests started as early as 8 am. At around 1 pm in Harare, before the planned protest march could begin, heavily armed police descended on the protesters and loaded them in four trucks. Some of them were severely beaten.
Those arrested included the ZCTU top leadership, including the Secretary-General, Wellington Chibebe, the President, Lovemore Matombo, the Vice-President, Lucia Matibenga, and several leaders of affiliated unions. Mr Chibebe reportedly has been separated from the rest and is in solitary confinement.
According to information ZCTU has forwarded to foreign trade unions, ten people were arrested in Bulawayo including one woman activists, who was severely assaulted by the riot police. The riot police broke up the demonstrations by firing tear smoke and indiscriminately beating up people and in the ensuing melee. One ZCTU activist was knocked down by a lorry and is in hospital.
In Mutare, 300 activists were arrested while they prepared to march into town. They are still being held by police. The ZCTU District Chairman was arrested in Gwanda early in the morning and is still being held by police. The District Chairman of Victoria Falls was also arrested for distributing fliers informing people about the ZCTU protest.
The ZCTU fears that those arrested "might be detained overnight and in different police Stations, where they say they cannot rule out the possibility of them being tortured," as many were on the previous ZCTU protest on 8 October.
In Harare, also journalists from the independent media were reported to have been beaten. ZCTU says the journalists were taken to the Central Police Station. "There are fears that they might be detained over night and they can be detained in different police Stations where we can not rule out the possibility of them being tortured."
The planned protest was organised by the labour body to pressure government to reduce taxation ahead of the announcement of the national budget on Thursday. In Harare, the protesters wanted to march along the capital and hand over their petition outlining their demands to the Finance Minister Herbert Murerwa. Zimbabwean workers are among there highest taxed people in the world.
In accordance with Zimbabwe's 'Public Order and Security Act', the ZCTU in due time had notified the police of its planned day of action, thus making the demonstration legal if police had approved of it. No police answer was however given. Several days ago, ZCTU gave detailed reports of threats made by police officers to quash the national protest and concerned at attempts to label the demonstration as illegitimate.
The National Day of Union Protest, which was to be marked today, in advance had found strong support among regional and international trade unions. The South African union federation, COSATU, a firm ZCTU ally, today said it "vehemently condemns" police action against ZCTU leaders and members. COSATU demanded "the immediate release of all those detained and the dropping of any charges."
The South African union has "declared its full support for the ZCTU's legitimate protest action to pressure government," spokesman Patrick Craven said. The protest was also against the government's abuse of human and trade union rights, "which has been entirely vindicated by today's police action, which illustrates the government's complete lack of any respect for the right to free speech and assembly," Mr Craven added.
Also the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) today "strongly condemned a wave of arrests of trade unionists, designed to quash national protests," according to spokesperson Barbara Kwateng. The confederation was especially concerned about the security of ZCTU leaders Peter Munyukwi and David Shambare, as the current whereabouts of the two men "remain unknown".
ICFTU Secretary-General Guy Ryder already had written a protest letter to Zimbabwean President Prober Mugabe underlining that "we will add the information on the events of the last 24 hours to our existing complaint against Zimbabwe for violation of freedom of association legislation, lodged with the International Labour Organisation. The ICFTU will not hesitate to report any further repressive action by the police if given cause to."
Also Southern African trade unions are increasing their condemnation of the Mugabe regime, after pressure from ZCTU and COSATU. At a meeting in Harare last week, the 11 affiliates of the Southern African Trade Union Coordination Council called on their governments to put pressure on Zimbabwe and Swaziland to respect human and workers rights.
Earlier this year, COSATU blockaded the South African border with Swaziland, but so far no action has been taken against Zimbabwe. Mr Craven recently said if the idea for similar action were called for by the Zimbabwean trade union, "I am sure this would be considered very sympathetically." He added any action against the Harare government would have to be in support of its counterpart in Zimbabwe.
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