/ 25 May 2010

Zim police arrest two gay rights activists

Zimbabwe police have arrested two members of a gay organisation after they posted a letter in their office from former San Francisco Mayor Willie Lewis Brown criticising the Zimbabwean president’s opposition to homosexuality, their lawyer said on Monday.

Ellen Chadehama, 34, and Ingatius Mhambi, 38, are employees of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) organisation. They were arrested on allegations under Zimbabwe’s censorship laws on Friday.

Attorney David Hofisi said the two will remain in jail until Wednesday — Tuesday is a public holiday in Zimbabwe — after police seized the letter from the organisation’s suburban offices.

Police said the letter, mounted on an office wall, “undermined the authority of the president,” an offence under sweeping security laws carrying a penalty of a fine or brief imprisonment.

Police raided the offices of the gay and HIV/Aids awareness group on Friday, removing documents and files.

Hofisi said he was not allowed to visit the two staff members in jail over the weekend.

“We asked the police to release them to us so we can come with them to court on Wednesday, but they have denied that,” he said.

‘Champion of gay rights’
The United States mayor’s letter also commended the local organisation as a champion of gay rights. Brown did not respond to requests for comment left at his San Francisco office.

President Robert Mugabe has described same-sex partners as “lower than dogs and pigs” but arrests of homosexuals are rare in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe, 86, had been in power for three decades since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain. Last year, he entered a power-sharing coalition government with his long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai following a disputed 2008 election. However, the fragile partnership has been fraught with disagreements, including allegations that Mugabe’s party has not done enough to promote democratic reforms.

Human rights organisations have called for Mugabe to face trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of political violence, vote-rigging and human rights violations by state agents over the past decade.

Homosexuality is illegal in most African countries. Last week in Malawi, a judge sentenced a couple to a maximum 14 years in prison with hard labour after the men celebrated their engagement with a party at a hotel. In Uganda, lawmakers are considering a Bill under which homosexuals could be sentenced to life in prison and “repeat offenders” could be executed. Even in South Africa, the only African country that recognises homosexual rights, there have been reports of gangs raping lesbians. — Sapa-AP