HARARE – Barely a week after being elected as a local councilor for Zimbabwe's main opposition party, Womberaiishe Nhende and a relative were pulled out of their car by unidentified men, shot with a stun gun and handcuffed.
They were then bundled into a pickup truck and driven about 70 kilometers (more than 40 miles) outside of Harare, the capital, where they were whipped, beaten with truncheons and interrogated, and injected with an unknown substance, their lawyers say.
Having been questioned over what their Citizens Coalition for Change party is planning after August's disputed and troubled national election, the ordeal ended when the two men were dumped naked near a river, the lawyers allege.
Their story isn't new in the southern African nation, which has a long history of violence and intimidation against opposition to the ZANU-PF party during its 43-year rule.
There are signs that the country has now slipped into another era of brutal oppression, even as newly reelected President Emmerson Mnangagwa speaks publicly of “peace, love, harmony and tolerance."
Behind those sweet words, more than a dozen opposition CCC figures — from elected representatives to officials and activists — have been been arrested by police in the three weeks since the election, the party says. Others have been targeted with violent abductions.
“It is the beginning of a new term and we are seeing people being abducted and tortured, people’s homes being burnt down, and lawyers arrested for simply doing their job,” said Doug Coltart, one of Nhende’s lawyers, who was himself arrested.
“It only creates the impression that we are going to see further breakdown in the rule of law in Zimbabwe.”
Mnangagwa, a former guerrilla fighter known as “the crocodile,” won a second term as president last month in an election rejected by the CCC as flawed and questioned by international and regional observers, who cited numerous problems, including a climate of fear and intimidation.
That appears to still be a mainstay in Zimbabwe six years after renowned autocratic leader Robert Mugabe was ousted in a coup and replaced by Mnangagwa in 2017.
Coltart and another of Nhende's lawyers, Tapiwa Muchineripi, were detained and charged with obstructing justice for telling police that they couldn't question Nhende and relative Sanele Mkuhlani over their beatings while they were sedated, they said. Coltart isn't new to harassment, having been arrested by authorities for doing his job at least four times before, but he said the latest crackdown so soon after the elections doesn't "bode well for the next phase.”
Mnangagwa and his party have repeatedly denied allegations of using repression to crush dissent. Yet the president, who turned 81 on Friday, described the opposition's allegations as “noises from some little boys” and threatened to imprison “anybody who wants to be nonsensical and bring chaos.”
Mnangagwa's often-repeated assertion that Zimbabwe is a mature democracy under him is seen as a facade by many, including prominent international rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. A truer picture of Zimbabwean politics might be the deep red and black welts and rips in the skin visible across Nhende’s back and lower legs, the result of a lashing with a heavy sjambok whip, his lawyers said.
Nhende recounted his experience and showed his wounds in a video released by the CCC, the closest challenger to ZANU-PF in the election.
“They beat us up trying to extract information about our post-election plans,” Nhende said in the video, during which he winces in pain as he speaks.
The sight of an elected representative showing injuries from a beating isn't uncommon in Zimbabwe.
More than 15 years ago, then-opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was photographed by the world's media with a swollen and badly bruised face, one eye completely closed, after having been detained by police during the Mugabe era and severely beaten.
It appears little has changed in a country that offers unrealized potential for Africa, given its rich agricultural land, mineral resources that include the continent's biggest lithium deposits, and potential oil and gas finds.
Police announced a new bout of arrests of opposition figures last week — including a newly elected CCC lawmaker, on charges of attempted murder and malicious damage to property during the election. The CCC says two of its lawmakers have recently been arrested. Other representatives were reelected last month while in detention.
Party spokesperson Promise Mkwananzi has left the country after police said they were seeking to arrest him for failing to attend a court hearing in 2019, and charged him with assault and damage to property. CCC deputy spokesperson Gift Siziba was arrested on charges of inciting violence at a soccer game.
Amnesty has raised the case of another CCC activist, who it says was abducted and tortured in the days after the election.
The CCC and analysts say there is a clear post-election clampdown now that the international observers have left.
“All this post-election repression is to suffocate the opposition,” Zimbabwean political commentator Rashweat Mukundu said. “What we are seeing now is an indication that there has been no reform. Elections have failed to resolve the governance issues in Zimbabwe, so the repression is a pattern that is likely to persist until the next elections."
After visiting Nhende and Mkuhlani in the hospital, CCC leader Nelson Chamisa, who lost to Mnangangwa in the presidential election, said that his party was under siege and facing a backlash.
"After freedom of choice, you don't expect torture," Chamisa said. “It was a sham election, a disputed election, a flawed election. But beyond that, you torture people for what reason?”
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