LAW enforcement agents have come under fire for alleged selective application of the law after allowing thousands of Johane Marange followers to hold their annual pilgrimage at Mafararikwa village in Bocha, Manicaland province, at a time when all public gatherings are banned as a COVID-19 containment measure.
The pilgrimage started on July 3 and ends on July 17 amid fears it could be a super spreader of the respiratory disease as the sect members are reportedly not observing World Health Organisation-prescribed safety measures nor do they believe in vaccination.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) has since petitioned police to urgently disperse the gathering and arrest the leaders.
Under level 4 lockdown, which was imposed a fortnight ago, all gatherings are prohibited, with an exception of funerals, which are restricted to only 30 people.
In a letter dated July 12, and directed to Manicaland provincial police boss, ZLHR lawyers said they would take legal action against the State if the police failed to disperse the apostolic church members by end of day today.
The letter was copied to Police Commissioner-General Godwin Matanga, Home Affairs minister Kazembe Kazembe and Vice-President and Health minister Constantino Chiwenga.
“We have noted with concern complacency in enforcing COVID-19 lockdown measures in Manicaland by members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), who have either failed or neglected to disperse members of the Johanne Marange in Mafararikwa village,” the lawyers said.
“The neglect of duty by the police comes at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented increase in COVID-19 cases.”
The lawyers said if the police failed to disperse the church members by the end of day today, they would attribute all COVID-19 deaths and infections in Manicaland province to negligence by the police.
By Monday morning, the Health and Child Care ministry situational reports showed that Zimbabwe had recorded 2 185 deaths and 67 765 infections since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March last year.
“It is common knowledge that public gatherings are super spreaders and a threat to public health,” ZLHR wrote.
“It is sad to note that members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police in Manicaland have kept a blind eye and failed to enforce COVID-19 regulations by failing to disperse and arrest the Johanne Marange members who are attending a vigil at Mafararikwa.
“The neglect by the ZRP is a health hazard with far-reaching consequences on the overall community health of Manicaland province. Members of the police have a duty to enforce the law impartially.”
Hundreds of opposition activists and ordinary citizens have been arrested for violating safety regulations, but Zanu PF supporters have often been left to go scot-free.
National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said he was not aware of the ZLHR letter.
“I haven’t yet seen the letter you are talking about, so I cannot comment on the matter,” Nyathi said.
Kazembe was not picking calls on his phone.
However, while addressing a Press conference on lockdown enforcement last week, Kazembe said police would enforce adherence to COVID-19 regulations “without fear or favour”.
But rights activists have accused government of applying the law selectively for failing to arrest and prosecute Johane Marange apostolic sect leaders for violation of the COVID-19 regulations like they do to similar offenders.
They accused top government officials of deliberately protecting the apostolic church members from justice for political expediency.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his predecessor, the late Robert Mugabe, have attended Johane Marange sect church services on several occasions to garner political support.
“We understand that the Apostolic and Zion Churches in Zimbabwe are a big constituency with a huge following and has become a favourite hunting ground for political parties when it comes to soliciting election votes, hence it has to be handled with care or else one may risk losing their political support and the subsequent votes during election time,” said Itai Rusike, executive director for Community Working Group on Health.
Rusike said there was need to balance between freedom of worship and saving lives, especially in the during of a global pandemic.
In a related development, Marondera police on Monday impounded a Sable company bus believed to have come from South Africa after finding it offloading passengers and goods in the town at a time cross-border and inter-city travel is under a 14-day lockdown ban.
“Ministry of Health and Child Care officials tested the passengers, with three registering COVID-19 positive results while the other 35 tested negative. The bus company is now facing criminal charges while the passengers have been taken to Mahusekwa Hospital for isolation. No to smuggling activities and spreading of COVID-19 pandemic,” police said in a statement – NEWSDAY