Harare, Zimbabwe - A group of pastors leading a prayer meeting, plus members of their congregation, are still being held in detention after the meeting was violently disrupted by police in Harare on Saturday.
14 people, including four pastors, were arrested while attending the Glen Norah prayer meeting, organised by civil society to pray for peace in Zimbabwe. But the meeting dissolved into chaos when riot police violently disrupted the gathering, and used tear gas and batons to disperse the crowds.
The church service had originally been scheduled for St Peters Kubatana Centre in Highfields, but the venue was changed after police camped in Highfields overnight and sealed off the venue to block people from accessing the grounds.
The service was then moved to the Nazarene Church in Glen Norah, but while the prayer service was underway, a truck load of riot police carrying tear gas rifles and batons, stormed the church. The group of about 20 armed police violently dispersed the congregation, which included many church, civic and community leaders. Scores of people were injured as the churchgoers, including elderly women and young children, tried to flee the police, with officers announcing that "church is over now, everybody go home." Eyewitnesses described children screaming while some youths were seen jumping out of the church windows. The police fired teargas canisters as people fled in different directions.
Irene Petras from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) was at the prayer meeting and has strongly condemned the police's behaviour. She told SW Radio Africa on Monday that "there really is a problem with the police. They don't want any form of assembly and even worship is now under attack."
Petras said that this unwarranted attack on the prayer meeting makes a mockery of recent statements by leaders in the region, who have called for an immediate end to violence and intimidation in Zimbabwe.
"There are clearly still forces who are opposed to the opening up of space, people who are opposed to compliance with the rule of law. Obviously these people are not willing to allow the Global Political Agreement to work, and are willing to not only to ignore our own leaders, but SADC leaders as well," Petras said.
SW Radio Africa's correspondent, Simon Muchemwa, said that police went on to indiscriminately fire tear gas canisters at residences and other churches surrounding the venue of the service. He said that "even children who were within and outside the parameters of the church were affected by the tear smoke and the police clampdown. Some people didn't even know there was a church service, but they were still affected."
Ten church goers and four pastors were arrested and taken to Glen Norah police station, where they were denied access to lawyers. One of the detainees, the MDC's Shakespeare Mukoyi, was brutally assaulted by police in the church building in Glen Norah. The MDC initially reported that Mukoyi had been abducted by ZANU PF thugs. But according to the ZLHR, Mukoyi was driven to hospital on Saturday night after his police beating. But he was seized by police again during his medical examination and detained.
One of the four church men, Pastor Isaya, who is in police custody together with Pastor Mukome, the Resident Priest at the Nazarene Church, was also assaulted by the police. One juvenile church goer has been released, but the rest of the arrested group still remains behind bars. They have been charged with 'public violence' and have been moved to Harare Central police station.
According to the ZLHR, the church service was aimed at "presenting an opportunity to pray for peace in Zimbabwe." It was also meant to commemorate the events of the 11th March 2007 'Save Zimbabwe Prayer Meeting', where activist Gift Tandare was shot dead and over 100 political and human rights activists were arrested, tortured and detained through similar heavy-handed police action.