Zimbabwe opposition officials held as UK imposes targeted sanctions

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The British government this week slapped targeted sanctions on four top defence and security officials in Zimbabwe, the same day police arrested two opposition officials on charges of insulting them.

The targeted sanctions are against security minister Owen Ncube, the head of the Central Intelligence Organisation, Isaac Moyo, the head of the police force Godwin Matanga and the commander of the presidential guard, Anselem Sanyatwe.

These are the first sanctions imposed by the UK on Zimbabwe under its “autonomous sanctions regime” since it left the European Union. The EU maintains an arms embargo on Zimbabwe and an asset freeze on the state munitions firm.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the four officials were responsible for the worst human rights violations in the country since President Emmerson Mnangagwa took power with the help of the army in November 2017.

He said those targeted would not be allowed to channel money through British banks or travel there.

“These sanctions go hand-in-hand with our efforts to encourage the government of Zimbabwe to safeguard human rights and implement genuine economic and political reforms,” Raab said.

The measures have so far received a tepid response from the authorities in Harare, who seem preoccupied with ongoing deaths from the coronavirus of senior figures in the government and civil service.

'Undermining police'

Government spokesman Nick Mangwana tweeted to say that none of the four targeted officials had assets in Britain or had tried to travel there in the past three years. He later deleted the tweet.

The announcement of the new sanctions came on the same day that two prominent opposition MDC Alliance officials were arrested for allegedly insulting the police.

Joanah Mamombe, the MP for Harare West and Cecilia Chimbiri, vice chair of the party’s youth assembly were arrested on Monday for allegedly pulling up alongside a police vehicle in central Harare and telling off officers for transporting arrested suspects without regard to social distancing.

The two women are being held at Harare's Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison on charges of "undermining police authority". Harare Magistrate Stanford Mambanje denied them bail on Thursday and remanded them in custody until 18 February. Their lawyers are to appeal for bail at the High Court.

There will be fears over the womens’ health. Zimbabwe’s jails are a hotbed for infection. Last week officials said 78 prisoners tested positive for Covid-19 at Mutimurefu prison in southern Masvingo province.

During their court appearances this week Mamombe and Chimbiri have been dressed in white protective overalls, head coverings, face masks and plastic visors.

'Weaponization of the law'

The MDC Alliance said the court's decision to deny them bail was “a travesty of justice”.

“Bail is a constitutional entitlement. This victimization & weaponization of the law must stop!” tweeted spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere, who is also a lawyer.

Last May Mamombe, Chimbiri and a third MDC Alliance official Netsai Marova were abducted and allegedly tortured by security agents after they took part in a street protest in Harare.

The police later accused them of faking their abduction and arrested them. They were charged with “communicating falsehoods” and breaching lockdown regulations.

The authorities appear to be cracking down on critics. Last month Mahere, journalist and social media influencer Hopewell Chin’ono and another MDC Alliance MP Job Sikhala were arrested and detained for tweeting about alleged police brutality.

Mahere is recovering from Covid-19 she got while in prison.