/ 25 March 2010

Zimbabwean police return pictures to gallery

Zimbabwean police on Wednesday returned graphic photos of human rights violations under President Robert Mugabe to an art gallery they had raided 24 hours earlier.

Officers seized all 66 images from the Gallery Delta in Harare and arrested the head of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Organisation, known as ZimRights, which organised the exhibition.

Police said the images were not fit for display because they showed nudity and injuries, and because the show’s organisers could not prove they had consent from all the subjects.

But human rights activists won a high court ruling to have the pictures sent back for the exhibition’s opening, which was to be attended by the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, and foreign diplomats.

Shortly after the pictures were rehung, Tsvangirai condemned the attempt at censorship. “When some of us are fighting for freedom of speech, there are still some trying to harm those freedoms,” he said.

‘The future of Zimbabwe is a democratic one’
“When I heard of the desperate attempt to stifle this display, I was not angry but felt sorry for them. Change will come whether you like it or not. It is like a flood. You cannot stop it … The future of Zimbabwe will be a democratic one.”

He said such exhibitions were an important part of the healing process. “The reason why there is a global political [powersharing] agreement is to say we want to move forward. You cannot move forward unless you are willing to reflect on the past, draw a line and say never again.”

But he admitted that political progress in Zimbabwe remained a case of “two steps forward, three steps back”.

The exhibition includes depictions of the effects of violence during the 2008 elections, during which Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change says more than 200 people were killed.

The images include Tsvangirai himself, face swollen and head bandaged after he was assaulted by police.

There are also pictures of men with missing limbs and other injuries, police breaking up peace demonstrations and Mugabe at prayer.

ZimRights said police removed the pictures from the walls and held the group’s leader, Okay Machisa, for questioning. Machisa was later released but did not attend last night’s opening.

The police argued in court that the images were lewd and that those shown had not given their consent. Lawyers for ZimRights said they had gained the victims’ consent.

The return of the pictures was applauded by guests, who included the British and American ambassadors, at a reception on the gallery lawn.

Norma Masaire of ZimRights said: “We’ve almost got used to the idea that when we want to do something like this we’ll have problems with the political situation in Zimbabwe. When the police interfere you are left with nowhere else to run to.”

She added: “This incident raises more questions about freedom of speech. You have to worry about who’s listening and who’s watching. But we can’t be entirely pessimistic because at least the exhibition is going ahead, despite obstacles along the way.”

Shortly after Tsvangirai spoke, however, police returned to the gallery, causing alarm among the guests.

After a few minutes they left, warning that they would return. Gallery staff could then be seen frantically taking down the pictures and packing them away to ensure they were not impounded again. —