Although cases of police harassment have been reported in Botswana during the COVID-19 lockdown, indications are that they pale in comparison to harassment in other parts of the Southern African region. An Amnesty international report released on Friday detail incidents of police harassment and brutality in the region, Botswana was however left out of the report.
According to the human rights watchdog report: “Across the region, a combination of civilian police and soldiers have been deployed to the streets to monitor the movement of people and ensure they comply with lockdown measures implemented by governments. However, security personnel are using disproportionate force in dealing with members of the public, including beatings and other forms of public humiliation such as making people crawl on the ground. In some instances, police are accused of entering people’s homes and assaulting them. In Zambia, police were seen indiscriminately beating up people on the streets, including in pubs, after they were found in public. The national police spokesperson, Esther Katongo, later said on national television that police in Zambia had adopted a strategy to “hit” and “detain” anyone found on the streets.
“We hammer you, we hit you, then we do detention. If you escape, you are lucky,” she said in a media interview. In Zimbabwe, police officers raided Sakubva vegetable market in Mutare at dawn on 3 April, causing more than 300 vegetable vendors to flee and leave behind their produce. Police carried out the raid despite the agriculture sector being flagged as an essential service during the 21-day lockdown, which meant that the market could continue to service people who needed it to buy food. Police later burnt the vegetables and the vendors are yet to be compensated for their loss.
According to the World Food Programme, some 4.3 million people were in urgent need of food aid in the country before the pandemic. In Mozambique the local television station STV has reported cases of police accused of taking advantage of the state of emergency to raid informal vendors’ tuckshops and steal their goods, even when the tuckshops are closed. One informal trader said: “We are dying of hunger [because we are not allowed to trade]. [It] is unbearable. I can’t take it anymore. Who should solve this problem?” In Angola, several incidents of police violence have been reported since security forces were deployed to the streets to ensure public compliance to the national response against COVID-19 on 27 March.
Seven men were arrested while on their way to buy food in the market in Cabinda on 4 April. The men were progressively released from 5 April and the last two men were released on 7 April. The amnesty International report was published two days after The Botswana Network On Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) issued a statement “ condemning brutality by law enforcement.” In a press release, BONELA stated that it understood and fully supported “governments actions towards addressing COVID – 19 and the threat it poses to our very existence, actions such as these cannot and should not be tolerated, particularly when perpetrated against PWD who need greater care and support.
BONELA therefore calls on the President of the Republic of Botswana, commander of the armed forces and his government to make sure that while they are enforcing the laws aimed at addressing the virus, they do not subject Batswana to abuse and degradation of their dignity. We strongly urge President Masisi to take swift action for the formation of an independent Police Investigations Unit to ensure that officers who take liberties during this time, are investigated and held accountable fortheir actions to the fullest extent of the law. This will allay fears that Botswana is heading into a time where rule of law and respect for basic human rights are no longer the cornerstone of our democracy.”