Red cross steps up aid to desperate Zim prisons

Zimbabwe’s prisons, long infamous for being dirty, disease-ridden and in desperate states, will get a much-needed injection of help from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the agency said on Friday.

The ICRC has started distributing food to 6 300 detainees.

Kitchens, sanitation facilities and water-supply systems will be upgraded as well in the near future.

”We are working closely with the prison authorities to improve the situation for the most vulnerable detainees,” Thomas Merkelbach, head of the ICRC’s team in Harare, said in a statement.

An ICRC official said the food delivery was based on an assessment it conducted that highlighted the needs within the prisons. The agency was granted access to the prisons in April by the new coalition government in Zimbabwe.

The ICRC, as policy, does not release information based on the access it is given to prisoners and detainees. It says this confidentiality is how it gains entrance to places that would otherwise be closed off.

A South African documentary released earlier this year showed scores of skeletal prisoners in Zimbabwe dressed in rags and reportedly dying of malnutrition and HIV/Aids in filthy institutions without food, medication or basic cleaning materials.

The ICRC was granted access to the prisons, it appeared, shortly after the film was broadcast.

Prison support groups report that 20 of the country’s 14 000 inmates die each day.

Also planned for the prisons, the organisation said, are programmes to prevent the ”transmission of communicable disease and make sure that detainees receive the treatment they require in event of any outbreak of disease such as cholera”.

The ICRC’s sister organisation, the Federation of Red Cross Societies, has warned that most likely next week Zimbabwe will report that the latest cholera outbreak has infected 100 000 people since late last year.

The situation in the prisons, aid workers said, was a mirror of the poor state of Zimbabwe’s economy and lack of ability to feed its population. More than half the people receive handouts from the World Food Programme.

Farm invasions
Meanwhile, a tribunal of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on Friday declared the Zimbabwean government in breach of a court ruling ordering it to halt white-owned farm invasions and asked Zimbabwe’s neighbours to take action.

The tribunal of the 15-nation trade bloc, which is based in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, last year ordered the then-government of President Robert Mugabe to stop evicting or interfering with 77 white farmers.

The farmers had challenged their eviction under Mugabe’s controversial land-reform programme, which has seen thousands of white farmers and farm workers thrown off the land since 2000 and handed to Mugabe supporters.

Despite the ruling, authorities in Zimbabwe have continued their harassment of farmers. William Michael Campbell and others had expected the Zimbabwean government to comply with the orders.

Instead, as stated in the affidavits submitted by Campbell and his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, the authorities have continued their harassment of farmers and workers, leading them to return to the court to seek protection.

Finding the Zimbabwean government ”in breach and contempt” of last year’s ruling, on the basis of statements by government officials and the continued ”invasions and harassment”, the tribunal ordered that the case be reported to the next SADC summit for action.

Mugabe himself has described the ruling as ”absolute nonsense”. The court also ordered costs pursuant to the ruling.

Deon Theron of the Zimbabwean Commercial Farmers’ Union, expressed satisfaction with the ruling while maintaining a ”wait-and-see” whether SADC was going to ”take appropriate action”.

The Zimbabwean farmers had originally turned to the SADC tribunal after being denied the right to challenge their evictions in Zimbabwe.

The tribunal had found the Zimbabwean government to be in breach of its obligations to the SADC founding treaty regarding the rights of the farmers to defend their rights in court. — Sapa-dpa

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