Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, two leaders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), a community organization working to empower women in development and action for justice, were released from Mlondolozi Prison on Thursday 6 November, three weeks to the day they were arrested.
The news was greeted with great joy by their supporters, who had worked hard for their release, alongside other victims of widespread human rights abuses inside the country.
WOZA’s lawyers lodged an appeal in the High Court a fortnight ago, in an attempt to overturn a Bulawayo magistrate’s decision at the time to refuse the women bail. Their bail had been paid yesterday evening but prison authorities would not allow them to be released, saying the prison administration was closed and it too late.
Both woen are reported to be "in fair health, suffering from lice infections and needing to visit the doctor but otherwise okay."
They bring with them horror stories of prison conditions and treatment in both Bulawayo (Grey Street) and Mlondolozi Prisons. For the first two weeks, the activists were in the remand cell in Yard One, which is according to prison regulations.
Their treatment took a worrying turn last week Wednesday when Magodonga was moved into the yard inhabited by dangerous prisoners, both on remand and convicted. Yard Two also accommodates 15 mental health patients.
The extreme hunger experienced by most prisoners means that even orange peels and the scraps on dirty plates are fought over. There is also no privacy for the female prisoners. Male prison guards are allowed to wander around the female prison and can see into washing facilities.
Prisoners in Yard Two are also stripped naked every day for inspection by prison officers as they are locked down. At least three minors (aged 15 and 16) were being kept in the same cell as Williams.
Williams and Mahlangu will appear for a routine remand in Bulawayo Magistrate’s Court on Monday 10 November 2008.
WOZA says it is "delighted that the state’s petty attempt to pervert justice has finally been overruled and looks forward to challenging these farcical charges. [We] would also like to thank Kossam Ncube and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights for their support and their determination to secure the release of Jenni and Magodonga."
Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu have thanked everyone who lobbied for their release, sent messages of solidarity and kept them in their thoughts and prayers. Solidarity from friends inside the country and around the world went a long way to ensuring that their time in Mlondolozi Prison was made more bearable, they say.
The South African Council of Churches (SACC) has expressed ongoing concern over the lack of progress in the addressing the continuing political, economic and human rights crises in Zimbabwe. It backed calls for the women's immediate release.
About 200 WOZA activists had gathered outside government offices in Bulawayo on World Food Day (16 October 2008) to demand immediate access to food aid in Zimbabwe. According to press accounts and information gathered by international human rights agencies, police used force to disperse the peaceful demonstration.
A number of women were beaten by police, including several who were arrested even before the protest commenced. Most of those arrested were apparently released during the course of the day, but Mahlangu and Williams were detained, having been charged with disturbing the peace.
The South African Council of Churches’ Executive Committee has called on all of Zimbabwe’s political leaders to involve civil society in negotiations to resolve that nation’s political impasse.
“Incidents such as the attack on WOZA heighten our concern that ordinary Zimbabweans will be the ones to suffer if the country’s social compact is nothing more than a self-serving agreement among political elites,” said a spokesperson.
More information: http://www.wozazimbabwe.org
With thanks to Fiona Lloyd