Zimbabwean opposition activists and a member of parliament have described torture, humiliation and repeated sexual assaults after being abducted by suspected state security services.
The three women, all leaders of the Movement for Democratic Change’s youth movement, were arrested at a roadblock guarded by police and soldiers on Wednesday at a protest in Harare against the state’s failure to provide for the poor during the country’s Covid-19 lockdown.
They then disappeared until they were found on a roadside on Friday morning 60 miles away from the capital by a local man, badly injured and traumatised.
Witnesses said masked assailants bundled the three women into an unmarked Toyota minivan and drove them away.
One of the women, Cecilia Chimbiri, 33, told the Guardian they were taken to a remote, wooded area where they were beaten, stripped naked, sexually assaulted with firearms, and forced to drink each other’s urine.
“They beat me on my back, all over the body using sticks. They used a gun to beat us, then molested me, “ Chimbiri said.
“They pushed [us] out of the truck on to the road. They left us there. They said ‘we will be watching you … What is so special about you that you want to turn against the government?”
Another of the women, Joana Mamombe, one of the youngest Zimbabwean members of parliament, described how they were forced to march and sing protest songs.
“They were pouring water on us. They beat us if we stopped. They made us drink each other’s urine. They were fondling Cecilia,” Mamombe, 36, told reporters at a private Harare hospital where she is receiving treatment.
Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the MDC, called for international intervention.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power in Zimbabwe as president after the fall of Robert Mugabe in 2017, was last year accused by Amnesty International of a “ruthless” and systematic crackdown on human rights.
Chimbiri’s father, Henry Chimbiri, told reporters that “state agents” had been responsible for the abduction of his daughter.
“They are not human. They are killers. The girls are in bad shape. They are in pain. One can’t talk. She is just crying The police is no longer our police,” he said.
Zimbabwean police said they were investigating the suspected abduction case and suggested that imposters were responsible for the attack.
“Police are concerned with the abuse of social media platforms by some members of the public. Some are even using cellphone lines registered in fictitious names to abuse state officials, among other criminal acts. Members of the public are warned against the practice and offenders will certainly be brought to book,” said a police spokesman.
Authorities in Zimbabwe have previously suggested that abductions of trade unionists, lawyers and opposition activists have been staged to discredit the government.
Nick Mangwana, the government’s information secretary, called on the three women “to work with the law enforcement agents in order to bring the truth to light”.
“The three women were part of a group of MDC youths that defied the lockdown laws in the country and took part in an illegal demonstration,” Mangwana said in a statement, adding that police started looking for them after they failed to show up for questioning.
Dozens of pro-democracy campaigners, trade unionists and opposition officials have been abducted by suspected state security services in recent years.
Most have been released after several hours, though many have been badly beaten, stripped, threatened or otherwise mistreated.
Last year government ministers and senior officials suggested the apparent abduction of a doctor and labour activist had been carried out by a “third force” to destabilise the country.
Allegations that unidentified third parties were undermining authorities were a staple under Mugabe, who ruled for 37 years and died last year in a clinic in Singapore.
The European Union on Friday said it was “deeply concerned” about the “torture and humiliation” reported by the MDC members and urged authorities to investigate their “enforced disappearance”.
Zimbabwe Lawyers For Human Rights condemned the abduction.
“ZLHR strongly condemns such wanton disregard of human rights and the constitution. Enforced disappearances, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment can never be justified. All perpetrators must be held accountable,” the human rights watchdog said in a statement.
Public discontent has grown in Zimbabwe with Mnangagwa, who has struggled to fulfil promises of economic prosperity and greater political freedom. The health system has largely collapsed amid the worst economic crisis in more than a decade.
Chamisa continues to dispute his narrow loss to Mnangagwa in the elections in 2018 but has struggled to mobilise mass support for the MDC.