Zimbabwe's Slapstick Law Enforcers

MUTARE, Zimbabwe—The first slap on the soles of my feet sent shivers of pain through my body.\r\n

A journalist colleague and I wriggled in our handcuffs inside a police station, as a short, muscular officer beat our bare feet from a plank of wood ripped from an office table. I received four more hard strokes. My colleague, who had resisted from being handcuffed, got ten.

Zimbabwean police, pictured here assaulting demonstrators in July 2007, have been accused often of human-rights violations.

I warned the officer that such violence would get him in trouble. He got angrier and the foot beating became more intense.

We later lodged a formal complaint with the station Officer in Charge, Inspector Mukandishaya, who in the presence of his second-in-command Assistant Inspector Takawira, expressed regret at the policeman’s actions. Both declined to give their first names.

"We are an organization with strong values and do not tolerate brutality in our stations," said Mr. Mukandishaya. "But like any organization, we sometimes find ourselves with bad apples." He assured us "action will be taken" in the coming days. On Wednesday, Mr. Mukandishaya said they were still investigating my case and would inform me when the probe was completed.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s national police spokesman, superintendent Andrew Phiri, said most people didn’t report cases of police brutality because they weren’t aware of their rights. "It is only a few people like you who know their rights who come forward to report," he said. "When such reports are made, we take action against the culprit." He added that Zimbabwe’s police are trained to respect human rights.

So many times I have written about police abuses, almost always from the perspective of victims or their lawyers. But now it was me experiencing Zimbabwe’s brutal brand of law enforcement, from the soles of my feet on up.

I should’ve known better. Growing up in Sakubva, a tough and poor neighborhood in eastern Zimbabwe, I learned to steer clear from a policeman’s path. But after years of working in the capital city of Harare—where policing is a bit more civilized—my small-town survival instincts weren’t what they used to be.

Human-rights groups accuse Zimbabwe’s police of widespread abuse, with officers sometimes joining youth militia to harass critics of President Robert Mugabe. In its latest report, the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a group that monitors human-rights violations, said in its latest report that "human rights situation in Zimbabwe continued to deteriorate." In August alone, the group recorded 1,120 cases of human-rights violations, which included police brutality.

In one of the few incidents of police brutality made public, a local city newspaper reported in May last year how five officers from the same station where I was held beat four juveniles. The police forced the kids into a coffin and continued to beat them until they confessed to theft.

But on a visit home two weekends ago, as I intervened in a dispute over a missing cell phone, such incidents were far from my mind. A neighborhood woman identified two children—one seven and the other five—as having taken the phone, perhaps mistaking it for a toy. Four male police officers who appeared insisted on taking the two playmates to the local police station for questioning. My colleague and I thought we could persuade the police from taking two children to a police station hosting an assortment of adult ruffians.

"How can four policemen walk all the way from the station to take two children barely of formal school-going age?" queried my colleague, who like me, was from the same neighborhood and now worked in Harare.

Without adequate transport, foot patrol is the norm for police officers here. I suggested instead taking the children and the parents to a nearby house to talk them through the situation.

Our challenge touched off a scene. A crowd gathered and the police turned on us.

"So you are the ones who are our bosses now?" said one of the police officer, charging toward us. "You want to direct our operations?"

"Handcuff them," ordered another policeman. "They want to embarrass us in front of all these people."

We offered to drive our car to the station, but this only further incensed the foot patrol. "You are walking. That is what happens to people like you," said one of the policemen. He tightened our handcuffs.

At the station, the most muscular of the four summoned us into a private room. He called a colleague to stand guard and then shut the door. "You were mistaken if you thought I was done when I handcuffed you," he said.

The policeman beat us for 15 minutes at a time. In between, he lectured us on the importance of his uniform. When we finally told him we were both journalists, the beatings suddenly stopped.

We were ushered into the office of the station’s second-in-command, Assistant Inspector Takawira, who ordered our handcuffs removed and offered his apologies. The constable who beat us demanded we admit our guilt and pay a fine. His superior informed him we were being released without charge.

Two hours later, I walked out to my girlfriend and my daughter in the waiting room. I am now a free man, but one with a limp and sore wrists.

Each week, Africa Dispatch takes a snapshot of a different African place, offering a ground-level view of change on the continent.