On September 24, 2016, at least 50 anti-riot police reportedly arrested 14 university students and three other individuals at a peaceful meeting of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU).
ZINASU, which convenes student leaders from higher education institutions across Zimbabwe, held its 21st General Council on September 24 at the Forestry Industry Training Centre in Mutare. The meeting was attended by 130 members from 62 higher education institutions, and was held against the backdrop of a distressed higher education sector, marked by concerns of threats to academic freedom.
While ZINASU’s meeting paused for lunch, a group of at least 50 anti-riot police, heavily armed with water cannons, arrived on the scene. There, they reportedly called out the names of 17 individuals who they said were under arrest. Those arrestedy included: Alistar Pfunye, ZINASU’s President; Precious Manyoka, ZINASU’s Vice President; Melissa Museka, ZINASU’s International Relations Secretary; Pride Mkono, member of the Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe and former ZINASU President; Samuel Gwenzi, ZINASU’s Coordinator; Nigel Johnson, ZINASU’s Board Chairperson; 10 ZINASU members, including Tanyaradzwa Njorovingo, Prince Tendayi Jealosy, Kudzai Emmanuel Nhamo, Fanuel Chinowaita, Eric Kahari, Kudzai Muswe, Linda Matsapa, Taurau Choga, Takunda Hungwe, and Pride Mkono; and Emilie Larsen Ørneseidet and Jarand Hanto, both Norwegian students participating in an exchange program organized by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH).
Following the arrest, police officials stated that those in custody were charged with violating section 41 (b) of the criminal code, “disorderly conduct in public place;” namely, the police alleged that the students were “singing political songs” and “insulting the government.” On September 27, a local magistrate ordered the release of 13 ZINASU members and the two Norwegian students; the charges against them were dropped. Two ZINASU members – Mr. Pfunye and Mr. Hungwe – were held until September 28, when they were released; however they would face additional charges. Mr. Pfunye was charged with “failure to notify the police of a public gathering,” and Ms. Hungwe was charged with “undermining authority of or insulting [the] president.” Mr. Hungwe is scheduled to return to court on December 22, while authorities have not yet scheduled a hearing for Mr. Pfunye.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention and arrest of students and activists in retaliation for nonviolent expressive activity – conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. State officials have a responsibility not to interfere with the right to freedom of expression and association, so long as those rights are exercised peacefully and responsibly. Arrest aimed at limiting free expression and association undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.