Zimbabwe Cabinet approves proposal to criminalize protests

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HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s cabinet has approved proposed legislation that would make it a crime for activists to make “unsubstantiated claims” of human rights abuses, hold anti-government protests that could draw international attention or speak with foreign governments without state approval.

Critics Wednesday said the move “is meant to entrench authoritarianism.”

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Cabinet has approved the proposed amendments to the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act to criminalize “the unauthorized communication or negotiation by private citizens with foreign governments,” Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said.

“Other actions that will become punishable include planned and timed protests deliberately designed to coincide with major international, continental or regional events or visits,” Mutsvangwa said to reporters. “Unsubstantiated claims of torture and abductions that are concocted to tarnish the image of government” would also be criminalized, she said.

Last week, Mnangagwa said plans were underway to amend the law governing non-governmental organizations, which he accused of operating “outside their mandate and out of sync” with his administration.

The proposed changes to the law are expected to be approved by Zimbabwe’s parliament, which is dominated by Mnangagwa’s ruling ZANU-PF party.

Non-governmental organizations accused Mnangagwa of backtracking on his promises to make Zimbabwe more democratic when he took power in 2017 from longtime repressive ruler, and his mentor, the late Robert Mugabe.

“It’s a calculated attempt to silence critical voices and part of a broader agenda to entrench a de-facto one-party state,” charged Blessing Vava, director of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a grouping of more than 80 organizations that includes labor, church and student groups.

“NGOs have been instrumental in exposing human rights abuses and the government’s response is to criminalize their work,” said Vava.

Mnangagwa and his officials recently accused non-governmental organizations of working with Zimbabwe’s political opposition and foreign governments to try to topple his administration. He said anti-government protests and international sanctions are threats to his government.

Zimbabwe, a country of some 15 million people, is troubled by a deepening economic crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19 and marked by inflation of more than 650%, high unemployment that has resulted in more than two-thirds of the population surviving on informal trade, and an economic contraction estimated to be 10% this year, according the International Monetary Fund.

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