As Zimbabwe approves new constitution, civil society endures crackdown

Zimbabwe’s new constitution was approved by an overwhelming majority in Saturday’s referendum, according to the country’s electoral commission,” the BBC reports:

The document, which will limit future presidents to two five-year terms, was backed by more than three million votes – nearly 95% of those who voted. It was supported by the countries’ two main political parties who have been in a power-sharing government since 2009. The constitution’s approval paves the way for elections later in the year.

The weekend’s vote was free and fair, according to international observers.

“Based on its overall findings, the mission is of the view that there existed a substantially conducive and peaceful environment in which the referendum was conducted,” said Prince Gudiza Dlamini, the head of a Southern African Development Community observation mission. “The Zimbabweans were accorded the opportunity to freely express their will in voting for a referendum outcome of their choice.”

But human rights groups fear a crackdown on civil society groups is a disturbing indicator that the forthcoming election campaign is likely to be violent.

“The government needs to stop this police abuse of power and hold those responsible to account,” Human Rights Watch’s Tiseke Kasambala said in a statement.

“Zimbabwe’s authorities cannot expect to create a rights-respecting environment ahead of elections in the context of repression, harassment, and intimidation of civil society activists.”

Zimbabwean security forces’ defiance of a high court ruling ordering the release of a celebrated human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, highlights the need for democratic reform of state institutions.

“I think it shows that we are vindicated in setting out what needs to be done,” said Irene Petras, of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. “Political parties themselves need to look what is happening and see that these things need to be addressed because if we go into the election period with this kind of a police force, with these unreformed institutions, then we are likely to have problems in that election too.”

 “They have defied that court order, and did not implement what they were told to do,” said Kumbirai Mafunda, spokesman for the group.

“Human rights lawyers will not be intimidated, will not bow,” said Precious Chakasikwa, vice chairwoman of the organization. “For every Beatrice Mtetwa that these state agents and institutions put behind bars and attempt to embarrass, humiliate and punish without lawful cause, there are 10 other human rights lawyers waiting to take up the mantle.”

Ms. Mtetwa was arrested at the home of Thabani Mpofu, a top adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s prime minister and the leader of the M.D.C., whose house was raided by plainclothes police officers on Sunday morning, witnesses said. The arrests follow months of harsh crackdowns on opposition politicians and civic groups in Zimbabwe ahead of a presidential election that is expected to be held this year. …

Ms. Mtetwa’s arrest on Sunday particularly troubled activists. Though she has been at the forefront in defending human rights groups, some activists said, she has always acted as a lawyer defending her clients, not as an activist herself.

“There is a very clear, broad campaign going on,” said Frances Lovemore of the Counseling Services Unit, an organization that provides medical and mental health services to victims of political violence.

“This whole attack on the civil society is part of their campaign to delegitimize all the organizations providing any information to people about human rights abuses,” she said.

Security forces last month beat and arrested activists from Women of Zimbabwe Arise, and ransacked the offices of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, and charged the group’s director, Jestina Mukoko (right), with operating an illegal organization and smuggling radios into the country.

The crackdown signals maneuvering within ZANU-PF to succeed Robert Mugabe, analysts suggest.

“He doesn’t have as much control over the party as five years ago,” said Trevor Maisiri, an analyst for Southern Africa at International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “Warlords within his party and the youth are driving the violence—it’s not coming from one center.”

After years of misrule and unrest, Zimbabwe is at a critical juncture. The stakes are high in the presidential election. Mr. Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980 and is now 89, failed to win outright in 2008, and many here worry that he will use the country’s police and security forces to keep opposition supporters away from the polls to avoid defeat.

“Already the telltale signs are there,” said Douglas Mwonzora, the senior M.D.C. official on the constitution-drafting commission. “Unless the international community takes full responsibility and discharges its full duty to ensure the regime of Mugabe is brought into check, we will see a repeat of 2008.”

The security factions within ZANU-PF will never allow opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to win an election, say observers.

“It is civil society suffering now, but after the referendum the same state machinery will be turned on Tsvangirai,” said Munyaradzi Gwisai, a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.

As Lydia Polgreen writes in the New York Times:

In the new Constitution, the president’s power to rule by decree is curtailed, and the document bolsters the bill of rights by banning cruel punishments and torture. But critics say the draft retains many of the president’s powers and does not do enough to increase oversight.

“This will create one monster who will determine the future of this country,” said Job Sikhala, leader of a breakaway faction of the Movement for Democratic Change known as M.D.C.-99, who urged people to vote against the new Constitution. “Is that what we fought for?”

Lovemore Madhuku, a leader of the National Constitutional Assembly, a civic group that urged people to vote against the Constitution, said the document represented a compromise between political enemies, not an expression of how Zimbabwe’s people wish to be governed.

“A democratic constitution must come from a democratic process that must be dominated by the wishes of the people,” Mr. Madhuku said. “Almost every Zimbabwean accepts that the process was not a good process.”

Several of the NGOs cited above are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Vietnam: rare mass protests over Communist elite’s impunity

“Angry mourners clashed with riot police at a funeral procession in northern Vietnam at the weekend….in a rare mass protest at alleged impunity for the country’s Communist elite,” AFP reports:

Sunday’s unrest was triggered by the death of Nguyen Tuan Anh, whose family claims he was killed by the son-in-law of a powerful local official…

Video clips and photos posted online [above] showed police struggling to contain thousands of mourners as they stormed through the town of Vinh Yen bearing the coffin of Anh, whose disfigured body was pulled from a sewer earlier in the day. In one widely-shared image, a riot policeman is seen knocking over a white-headband wearing family member in the funeral procession, prompting a storm of online criticism of authorities’ handling of the unrest.

Public protest is traditionally rare in authoritarian Vietnam, a one-party state which tightly controls all demonstrations and outward signs of dissent.

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party “came to power wooing peasants on promises of sweeping land reforms,” The Economist notes:

Yet in these days of rapacious capitalism, many local officials seize farmland for development projects, compensating villagers at rates far below market value. The party’s pro-peasant rhetoric has come to sound hollow…..

Tension is especially acute on the peripheries of the capital, Hanoi, and other big cities. There, the disparity between property values and compensation rates is often widest. Some villagers protest outside government offices. Others, driven to desperation, defend their turf with rocks or homemade weapons. In one example, fish farmers in Haiphong, a port city east of Hanoi, disrupted a planned eviction by battling police with shotguns and homemade landmines. State-controlled media covered the incident extensively, and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, publicly chided local officials. Many Vietnamese view the farmers, who stand accused of attempted murder, as heroes

The Communist authorities appear especially anxious to prevent the politicization of rural protests that could arise from an alliance with largely urban-based dissidents such as Buddhist youth leader Le Cong Cau (below)  or human rights activist Le Quoc Quan (right).

The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights is deeply concerned for the security of Le Cong Cau who was threatened with prosecution by Security Police after his articles criticizing the Communist Party’s policies were posted on the Internet:

Le Cong Cau, 62, is Head of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam‘s Youth Movement Commission and an active coordinator of activities in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue. …He is accused of violating Article 87 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code on “undermining the unity policy” and Article 88 on “circulating anti-state propaganda”. These offences carry prison sentences of up to fifteen and twenty years. 

Specifically, the Police accused Le Cong Cau of criticizing the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and calling for political change; advocating on behalf of the UBCV; and denouncing the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Sangha as a political tool of the regime. Whilst admitting he had written on all these subjects, Le Cong Cau declared that he was expressing legitimate peaceful opinions, and thereby had committed no crime.

A broad coalition of human rights groups last week called for UN free speech and human rights bodies to secure the immediate release of Vietnamese blogger and human rights activist Le Quoc Quan, who has been held in solitary detention since his arrest on 27 December 2012 on trumped up allegations of tax evasion.

The petition argues that Le Quoc Quan is being persecuted for legitimate blogging and human rights advocacy, in violation of his rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association. A parallel petition has been sent to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, asking it to formally declare that Le Quoc Quan’s detention is arbitrary and demand his immediate release from the Government of Vietnam.

The Media Legal Defence Initiative, Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, Lawyers for Lawyers, Access Now, Media Defence – Southeast Asia, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, Frontline Defenders, English PEN, Avocats Sans Frontières Network, Index on Censorship and Article 19 have requested that the United Nations’ Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression, human rights defenders and freedom of association conduct an urgent intervention with the Vietnamese authorities on Le Quoc Quan’s behalf.

Both petitions can be downloaded: click here for the letter to the Special Rapporteurs and here for the petition to the UN Working Group.

Vietnam is now the world’s third biggest prison for bloggers and cyber-dissidents, after China and Oman, according to the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet.” Read this special report on Internet surveillance in Vietnam.

Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Security Police watch as the youths assault Thich Thanh Quang and Le Cong Cau. Photo IBIB 17.8.2012.

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Brotherhood attack on women’s rights ‘just the start’

No more illusions. No further evasions. Tolerate not a single additional apologetic explanation. Admit no further concessions to a false moral and cultural relativism, writes Hussein Ibish. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has now fully exposed itself as what many of us have been trying to explain it is: paranoid, chauvinistic, reactionary, retrograde, and, above all, misogynistic.

The Brotherhood has reminded us, in a bizarre rant against the UN Commission on the Status of Women, that Islamism in practice invariably prioritizes misogyny (and homophobia). But this is merely the vanguard of a much broader set of intended and inevitable repressions against minorities, individuals and, eventually, all opposition.

Islamism doesn’t have the intellectual depth of a systematic political ideology. It has no specific economic theory or program beyond mercantilism, with some (apparently malleable) suspicions about interest. It doesn’t have an analysis of class or other key social structures. Its ‘theory’ of the relationship of the individual and society simply empowers those claiming religious authority and ‘authenticity’. It has no distinctive defense strategy, foreign policy, developmental program, or anything like that.

Instead, it boils down to a set of extremely reactionary social attitudes that don’t have any real implications for such key issues of governance.

So much for the notion of the Brotherhood as moderate, open-minded, equitable, or pluralistic, or the idea that power will moderate them, at least as an organization. By releasing this document now, to the surprise, dismay, and astonishment of many, the Brotherhood has proudly reconfirmed its core orientation as authoritarian, intolerant, oppressive, and, above all, viciously misogynistic.

No one in Egypt or abroad will be able to claim “we had no idea” about the Brotherhood’s actual ideology. Their rule is not just a threat to Egyptian women, but to everybody. 

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.

This extract is taken from Now Lebanon. RTWT

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