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Zimbabwe rights groups say 6 activists abducted, beaten ahead of protests

Reuters | Harare | Updated: 15-08-2019 22:21 IST | Created: 15-08-2019 22:17 IST
Zimbabwe rights groups say 6 activists abducted, beaten ahead of protests
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Six Zimbabwean political activists were abducted from their homes at night and beaten by armed men this week, a coalition of rights groups said on Thursday, ahead of planned street demonstrations by the main opposition party. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which disputes Emmerson Mnangagwa's presidential election win last year, has called Friday's protest against the government's handling of the economy, which is facing its worst crisis in a decade.

The MDC has said the demonstrations will be peaceful, but police have said they believe the protest will turn violent. The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of rights groups, said it suspected state security agents were behind the abductions and beatings of the rights activists accused of planning the protests.

"The developments so far point to a real risk that the people of Zimbabwe's fundamental freedoms are once again in danger and this must be stopped before it gets out of control," Jestina Mukoko, who chairs the forum, told reporters. "Sadly, these developments remind us of the atrocities committed earlier this year in January," she said, referring to a military crackdown on violent protests that led to the death of more than a dozen people.

Mnangagwa's government said while police were investigating the abductions, it believed a "third force" comprising supporters of former leader Robert Mugabe were behind them. Nick Mangwana, secretary at the information ministry, said in a statement that three abductions had been reported to the police.

Mangwana pointed a finger at disgruntled former members of Mugabe's government, saying they were determined to soil Mnangagwa's reputation through "various acts of malice and criminality to cause both local and international outrage". The U.S. embassy in Harare said in a statement it was concerned by the torture allegations and urged protesters to be peaceful. It said political dialogue and political and economic reforms were the answer to Zimbabwe's problems.

Authorities are jittery following violence that rocked the country in January when protests against a sharp fuel price rise resulted in the looting of shops. When the army was deployed, some protesters were shot and rights groups said dozens of activists were seized from their homes in night raids and badly beaten by security agents.

Police spokesman Paul Nyathi said law enforcement officers had recovered stones and catapults stashed in central Harare, that he said were part of the evidence that showed that Friday's demonstrations would be violent. He said he was not aware of the abductions.

Since Wednesday the police have increased patrols in Harare ahead of the MDC protests, which the party said would be rolled out in other cities next week. Soaring inflation is eroding wages and pensions, bringing back memories of hyperinflation a decade ago. Shortages of hard currency, fuel, electricity, and bread have added to public anger at Mnangagwa's government.

Hopes that the economy would quickly recover and political rights would be expanded after Mugabe was removed in a coup in 2017 have turned to despair amid the economic hardship.

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