HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Three young female opposition activists in Zimbabwe, who charge they were tortured and sexually assaulted by state agents, were sent back to prison when a court denied them bail on new charges that they lied about their ordeal.
The three women were returned to Chikurubi maximum security prison, notorious for housing hardcore criminals in poor conditions, after Magistrate Bianca Makwande rejected their bail application Monday.
The magistrate agreed with the prosecution that the women could commit more crimes or flee the country before their case is concluded if they are released on bail. The ruling will be appealed, according to their lawyer, Alex Muchadehama who is with the organization Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
The three women, all members of the opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change, face up to 20 years in prison or a fine. Their case has been highlighted by human rights groups in Zimbabwe and internationally. A group of United Nations experts last week criticized President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government for a “reported pattern of disappearances and torture” by government agents in the southern African nation.
The women already faced charges of contravening Zimbabwe’s coronavirus lockdown because they organized an anti-government rally. Last week new charges accused them of making false statements to police “alleging that they had been unlawfully detained or kidnapped by some unknown people who claimed to be police officers.” The women are also accused of intending to incite violence with their statements.
The women allege that after they were arrested in May for organizing the rally, police allowed them to be taken away from the police station by unidentified men who beat them and raped them. The women were missing for nearly 48 hours before being dropped by a roadside near Bindura, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) northeast of Harare.
While they were treated in a hospital for their injuries, the three were charged with contravening lockdown regulations by participating in the protest.
On Monday, their lawyer accused prison authorities of starving them while they were locked up by refusing relatives or friends to bring them food to a jail known for food shortages.
Political tensions are high in Zimbabwe, where inflation above 700% is stoking anti-government sentiment. A Cabinet minister has accused unnamed foreign embassies, Christian preachers and political rivals of supporting “regime change.”
President Mnangagwa and the minister in charge of police Kazembe Kazembe last week claimed that the three women had fabricated the story of their abductions as part of a wider plot to destabilize the government.
Kazembe, flanked by military and police commanders, dismissed “rumors” of an impending coup, saying the government “is stable and peaceful internally.”
Amnesty International condemned the denial of bail for the women.
“The continued arbitrary detention of Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chinembiri and Netsai Marova amounts to persecution through prosecution and is designed to send a chilling message to anyone daring to challenge the Zimbabwean authorities,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southern Africa. “These women are victims of an escalating crackdown on the right to freedom of expression and criminalization of dissent. Instead of persecuting them, the Zimbabwean authorities should focus their efforts on holding those suspected to be responsible for their horrifying abduction, torture and sexual assault to account.”