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Covid-19: Torture and ill-treatment on the increase, Rights groups say

By Lulu Brenda Harris and Senzeni Ncube

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) has urged the government to uphold its constitutional obligation to prevent torture, inhuman or degrading treatment of its citizens, especially during the national lockdown order enforced to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The lawyers noted it was worrying that over the last three months, there were increased incidents of torture during the lockdown.

Their sentiments come as they observe the United Nations (UN) International Day in Support of Victims of Torture commemorated every year on June 26.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the theme of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture this year is “Combating torture and ill-treatment in the Covid-19 context.”

According to ZLHR, this is an opportunity to call on all stakeholders to unite in support of survivors and victims of torture around the world, who have been victims and survivors of torture and those who are still tortured today.

In a statement, the lawyers said it was important for stakeholders to evaluate progress made in the commitment to eradicate the pervasive culture of torture and international crimes, as the practice has long attained the status of customary international law, which cannot be permitted under any circumstances.

“Across the world, several countries have put measures in place to prevent and mitigate exposure to Covid-19 including imposing lockdowns as well as setting up quarantine facilities. Zimbabwe has been no exception.

“While ZLHR acknowledged the clear imperative to take firm action to combat COVID-19 all state actors must uphold the obligation to prevent torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. Any measures introduced to mitigate the spreading of COVID- 19 must never result in torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or of persons deprived of their liberty,” said the lawyers.

“On the International day in support of victims of torture, the UN- Anti-torture mechanism unanimously warned that the Covid-19 pandemic is leading to an escalation of torture and ill- treatment worldwide, and torture survivor are especially in danger of getting infected by the lethal virus due to their vulnerable situation.”

In April, two Bulawayo women were beaten up police officers who accused them of violating lockdown regulations while in May three MDC Alliance members were reportedly abducted by suspected security agents and were beaten, sexually assaulted and forced to eat and drink each other’s excreta.

The state denied the allegations and responded by arresting the three women accusing them of lying about their abduction.

The United Nation Special Rapporteur of Torture, Nils Melzer said governments must always uphold the prohibition of torture including during the state of emergencies based on Covid-19 pandemic. 

 “Governments must uphold the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at all times, including during states of emergencies based on the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Melzer. 

He said protective measures against the global pandemic cannot justify excessive use of force by certain governments. 

“Protective measures, including lockdowns and curfews, cannot justify any excessive use of force and coercion, and all allegations of torture or ill-treatment must be thoroughly investigated,” He said. 

In addition, The Chair of the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary fund for Victims of Torture, Dr Vivienne Nathanson said victims of torture are at increased risk of further traumatisation from the Covid-19 pandemic 

ZLHR also added that the Declaration of a State of National Disaster, does not in any way limit the government’s obligations to respect fundamental rights contained in the Constitution.

“Section 83 (3) of the Constitution o Zimbabwe prohibits the practice of torture under any circumstances including the declaration of national state or disaster or even a state of emergency. ZLHR it extremely concerned at the increased incidents of torture during the lockdown over the last three months,” said the grouping.

Equally compelling, ZLHR noted was the “complete failure by the state to fight impunity by investigating prosecuting and punish perpetrators of torture.”

“Instead while appearing as if it’s investigating the incidents of torture following complaints by victims, government has in some instances proceeded to prosecute some victims of torture,” said ZLHR.

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