Zimbabwe completely shuts internet amid protests, violent crackdown

ASSOCIATED PRESS
HARARE
Published 18.01.2019 13:13
Updated 18.01.2019 13:26
Protestors burn tires during a demonstration over the recent fuel price increase and the rising cost of living in the high-density suburb of Warren Park, Harare, Zimbabwe, Jan. 15, 2019. (EPA-EFE Photo)
Protestors burn tires during a demonstration over the recent fuel price increase and the rising cost of living in the high-density suburb of Warren Park, Harare, Zimbabwe, Jan. 15, 2019. (EPA-EFE Photo)

Zimbabwe on Friday faced a "total internet shutdown," a media group said, after a days-long violent crackdown on people protesting a dramatic fuel price increase. Badly injured people streamed into a hospital in the capital after alleged assaults by security forces.

Authorities have said three people died during protests, which erupted after Mnangagwa's government decreed a 150 percent hike in fuel prices. Rights groups say the toll was much higher.

"Our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history," the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference said in a sweeping statement lamenting the government's "intolerant handling of dissent" and its failure to halt the economic collapse.

A prominent pastor and activist who faces a possible 20 years in prison on a subversion charge arrived at court, one of more than 600 people arrested this week. Evan Mawarire has called it "heartbreaking" to see the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa acting like that of former leader Robert Mugabe.

Mawarire is accused of inciting civil disobedience online. "It's a shame what's happening," the handcuffed pastor said.

Media group MISA-Zimbabwe shared a text message from the country's largest telecom company, Econet, calling the government's internet order "beyond our reasonable control." The High Court will hear a challenge to the shutdown on Monday, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said.

The authorities first cut off internet access on Tuesday, before briefly restoring services on Wednesday although media platforms including email, Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter remained blocked throughout.

Critics say the government was trying to prevent images of its heavy-handedness in dealing with protesters from being broadcast around the world.

"We were served with another directive for total shutdown of the internet until further notice," Econet said in a statement. "Our lawyers advised that we are required to comply with the directive pending the court's decision on its legality."

Internet service will earliest resume on Saturday, junior information minister Energy Mutodi told dpa.

"We have ordered the shutdown because we noticed that the protesters were now organizing ... via social media, so our actions are justified," Mutodi said.

International calls for restraint by Zimbabwe's security forces are growing, while Mnangagwa prepares to plead for more investment at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He announced the fuel price increase on the eve of his overseas trip, leaving hardline former military commander and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga as acting president.

Gasoline in the economically shattered country is now the world's most expensive. Zimbabweans heeded a nationwide stay-at-home call earlier this week in protest. Rights groups and others have accused security forces of targeting activists and labor leaders in response, with the United States expressing alarm.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has said it had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds and 100-plus other cases of "assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton sticks" and more. Hungry residents of the capital, Harare, who ventured out seeking food reported being tear-gassed by police.

Soldiers were still controlling long fuel lines in Harare on Friday, and many wary residents stayed at home. Some said they can no longer afford fares for public transport.

Injured people streamed into a private hospital in the capital. Some had broken legs. A nurse attended to a man with a broken spine.

Albert Taurai told The Associated Press he had ventured out to look for bread when plainclothes officers wearing masks beat him up, accusing him of barricading roads.

Keith Frymore, a 21-year-old security guard, had a torn lip. He told the AP a group of uniformed soldiers attacked him at work.

"I need $70 to get help here. I don't have that kind of money," he said.

Death tolls this week have varied. Eight people were killed when police and military fired on crowds, Amnesty International said. Zimbabwe's government said three people were killed, including a policeman stoned to death by an angry crowd.

The demonstrations amount to "terrorism," Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said, blaming the opposition. State Security Minister Owen Ncube thanked security forces for "standing firm."

But among those arrested are several ruling ZANU-PF party community leaders as well as a soldier and a police officer.

In the capital, life resumed to normal after three days of clashes between police and protesters, which started on Monday. Long queues formed at petrol stations, and at retail outlets as people sought to stock up on food. Police patrolled the streets, especially in hotspots in the crowded townships.

Zimbabweans had briefly rejoiced when Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe, who was forced out in late 2017, thinking the new president would deliver on his refrain that the country "is open for business." But frustration has risen over the lack of improvement in the collapsed economy, which doesn't even have a currency of its own.

The U.K.'s minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, has summoned Zimbabwe's ambassador to discuss "disturbing reports of use of live ammunition, intimidation and excessive force" against protesters.

The European Union in a statement late Thursday noted the "disproportionate use of force by security personnel" and urged that internet service be restored.

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