WOZA wins 4 year court battle for better detention conditions

Jenni Willams (on left) and WOZA won a legal victory at the Constitutional Court

By Alex Bell
SW Radio Africa
6 June 2014

Pressure group Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) on Thursday scored a legal victory at the Constitutional Court, where they argued that their rights were violated by the deplorable conditions of the detention cells where they were detained in Harare.

WOZA leaders Jenni Williams, Magodonga Mahlangu, Celina Madukani and Clara Manjengwa petitioned the Supreme Court after their arrest and detention in 2010, saying the conditions at Harare Central Police Station constituted inhuman and degrading treatment.

Williams told SW Radio Africa that the time her and colleagues spent in detention was “five days of hell,” and they faced “the most appalling conditions,” including human waste overflowing in the cells. She said this prompted them into action, and their lawyers filed an application against the authorities over the poor conditions.

A five-judge panel of the Supreme Court in June 2012 eventually heard arguments from both WOZA and the State, and chose to make an inspection of the detention cells. According to the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), the five Supreme Court Judges “nearly fell on the slippery floors of Harare Central Police Station as a result of tailored polishing of the floors to give a facade of improved cell conditions during an inspection of the police lockups which they conducted in June 2012 to ascertain the state of their conditions.”

Williams said Friday that she believes that the police station was “tipped off” ahead of the judges visit, in an attempt to rig the court’s decision.

Judgement on the matter was reserved and two years later a decision has finally been communicated. On Thursday the Constitutional Court directed the authorities to “take all necessary steps and measures within their powers,” to ensure better conditions Harare Central Police Station.

This includes ensuring that all cells are kept in a hygienic condition, with clean flushing toilets. Detainees are also now rightfully required to be given clean blankets and mattresses, and will be allowed to have access to bathing facilities.

The orders also stipulate that access to clean drinking water, other than from the tap by the toilet, be provided.

Women detainees meanwhile will, according to the court order, be allowed to keep their underwear, including bras. Before the ruling, many women were forced to remove all their underwear while in detention.

Williams said the ConCourt judgment is welcome, but she said there needs to be a “mindset change” within the police force.

“It’s a serious problem. Every sergeant and officer acts like a god. That’s why you have a situation where, women are not supposed to be told to remove their underwear, but because the individual police officer decides he’s going to make it happen for whatever reasons, the power relations are such that when you are in detention, you find it hard to say no,” Williams explained.

She added: “That changing of the mindset within these demigods of the sergeants and officers is significant, and in the political framework we have in Zimbabwe, that’s going to be a problem. It might have to change at the top, before it can change at the bottom.”

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