The abduction this week of Zimbabwean journalist and pro-democracy activist Itai Dzamara has put activists in the country on edge.
The abduction put an end to what appeared to be a climate of improved political tolerance in the country.
Amnesty International has called on the Zimbabwean government to investigate the matter immediately.
Dzamara (36) was kidnapped by five men in Harare’s Glen View township on Monday morning when he was leaving a barber’s shop. The kidnappers are reported to have been in plain clothes and to have accused Dzamara of stealing cattle. They handcuffed him, forced him into a white bakkie with concealed number plates and drove off. His whereabouts are unknown.
Police spokesperson Charity Charamba confirmed the kidnapping and said police were investigating.
But there is a widespread yet unconfirmed belief that Dzamara was abducted by agents of the feared Central Intelligence Organisation, which is notorious for conducting this kind of operation.
A thorn in the flesh
Dzamara was increasingly becoming a thorn in the flesh for President Robert Mugabe’s regime. In October last year, he delivered a petition to Mugabe’s Munhumutapa offices in Harare to demand that the president step down immediately and pave the way for fresh elections.
A month later he was beaten and left for dead by the police after leading protests in Harare’s central business district. The protests, dubbed “Occupy Africa Unity Square”, demanded Mugabe’s resignation for failing to deliver on his electoral promises.
This year, Dzamara and members of the National Youth Action Alliance invaded the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s offices to hand over a petition demanding that the commission should admit that it is seriously incapacitated and not able to act independently.
Dzamara was also a central figure responsible for mobilising demonstrators to protest against planned electricity tariff increases by the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority last month.
“The abduction of Dzamara is deeply alarming,” said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International Southern Africa’s deputy director for research. “The Zimbabwean authorities, especially the police, must urgently institute a search operation and do all within their power to ensure his safe return.”
Dzamara’s case has been taken up by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which helped his wife, Sheffra Dzamara, to make a missing person’s report at Glen View police station.
“Since his disappearance on Monday, his mobile phone has been switched off and he has not had any contact with his wife, family and friends. Dzamara is being held incommunicado from his family and lawyers,” the organisation said in a statement. “His detention is illegal and violates fundamental rights protected under the Constitution of Zimbabwe.”
The organisation said Dzamara’s wife first went to the Harare central police station to file a formal missing person report, but the police refused to fill out the document and said she had to file the report at the Glen Norah police station.
“Lawyers have since filed an urgent habeas corpus application to compel whoever is holding Dzamara to bring him before the court so as to determine if he should really be in detention,” the organisation said.
Sordid history of abductions, deaths and disappearances
Zimbabwe’s state security agents have in the past been accused of torture, abductions and, in some cases, murder.
•?One of the high-profile cases that gripped the country was the disappearance in 1990 of Rashiwe Guzha, a typist in the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). Her alleged former lover and boss – the late CIO deputy director, Edson Shirihuru – was implicated in her disappearance. Shirihuru died in August 1993 while awaiting trial for Guzha’s abduction and disappearance.
•?In 2000, Patrick Nabanyana, an election agent for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) legislator David Coltart, was dragged out of his home in Bulawayo by unknown men and has not been seen since.
•?In 2007, Edward Chikomba, a freelance cameraman and former employee of the state television company, was abducted by men in plain clothes from his Harare home.
He was found dead two days later 80km from Harare. Several reports said his killing was related to the footage he sold to international media of a badly injured opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who had been beaten in police custody.
•?Shortly after Robert Mugabe lost the first round of presidential elections to Tsvangirai in 2008, MDC activist Tonderai Ndira was taken out of his home in Harare, allegedly by eight armed men wearing masks and dressed in plain clothes.
His body was found in a Harare morgue by his brother Cosmas a week later.
•?Also in 2008, prominent human rights activist and Zimbabwe Peace Project director Jestina Mukoko was abducted during the night from her home north of Harare by state agents for allegedly being involved in plans for antigovernment demonstrations.
Mukoko, a former newsreader for state television, was accused of recruiting youths for military training with the opposition MDC.
She was released on bail three months after her abduction in March 2009. Mukoko was tortured for information and was moved among different interrogators.
Among other torture methods, her interrogators forced her to kneel in gravel for hours, denied her sleep and medication, and beat the soles of her feet for days.
Her whereabouts had been unknown for a considerable time, during which the police denied she was in their custody. She was later found in police cells. – Takudzwa Munyaka