Harare — For Zimbabwe's gay community, voting season is a time of dread. As political temperatures rise ahead of expected elections next year, gays and lesbians are being targeted by police in an apparent strategy to win over voters.
On 11 August 2012, police raided a book launch at the headquarters of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), an NGO based in Harare that promotes the rights of sexual minorities. The police arrested 44 people, and although none were formally charged, the incident followed a familiar pattern of harassment, beatings and threats against people who openly identify as gay.
The group was released the next day, but not before being "profiled" - a term used by police to describe information gathering. Detainees' names, addresses, places of work and even details about friends and family were recorded.
With this information, police have been pursuing these individuals as well as people close to them. "We are in for a protracted campaign of harassment; it is going to be a very rough time," Chesterfield Samba, director of GALZ, told IRIN. "People are being tracked down in clubs and bars, at their jobs and homes, because they are suspected of being gay."
Same-sex relationships are considered a breach of the traditional family structure, in which marriage and procreation help perpetuate a system of care for elders. In Zimbabwe, regard for tradition is used to stir up populist sentiment during elections.
"Usually when anything political is happening, the vilification of the [gay] community begins," Samba said. "It is a fearful time, and it becomes difficult to go about daily life as normal."
Two key political events appear to have triggered the latest round of harassment: the expected presidential election - in which President Robert Mugabe will likely square off against his rival in the unity government, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai - and the referendum on a draft constitution, which, if adopted, could limit the powers of the presidency.
Tsvangirai has called for presidential and parliamentary elections to take place in March 2013. The current session of parliament ends in June 2013, and, according to the 2009 unity government agreement, the polls must be held by October 2013.
The constitution was drafted by a joint committee consisting of members of the main political parties, which formed a power-sharing government in the aftermath of the violent 2008 parliamentary and presidential elections. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party wants to dilute provisions of the constitution that curb presidential powers, while opposition parties see it as a tool to rein in presidential authority.
By raising the visibility of gay rights advocacy and linking it to the constitution - which makes no mention of the issue - Mugabe supporters hope to swing the referendum vote in their favour, indicating that, unless there are changes to the draft constitution, they will campaign for a no vote.
"The constitution does not mention homosexuality at all, and they are spinning its silence to mean that it embraces homosexuality," said David Hofisi, an attorney with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), which has been acting on behalf of a number of those arrested at the book launch.
At a rally celebrating his birthday earlier this year, Mugabe alleged that supporters of gay rights were attempting to insert a clause protecting same-sex marriage into the draft constitution. "We won't accept that," he said, according to media reports. "You don't have the freedom for men to marry men and women to marry women. You have the freedom for men to marry women. That's God's freedom. That's what created you and me."
Since the August arrests at GALZ headquarters, the police have continued their investigation into the 44 "suspects".
"Police used the information to visit their homes, including the parents of people that were arrested," Samba said. "They also went to the places of work of some of our members, so effectively 'outing' them. Some were kicked out of their homes. Others face disciplinary action from their bosses who are homophobic."
"Usually, police conduct an operation from time to time against the gay community, then move on, but this time it's a sustained campaign and we have no idea when it will end," Hofisi told IRIN.
An attempt to obtain a court injunction against the police was halted earlier this month, when a group of youths stormed the courtroom in Mbara, a poor neighbourhood south of Harare, forcing lawyers and plaintiffs to flee. "We are now asking the court to transfer proceedings to a different court that is in a less volatile area," Hofisi said.
An intolerance of gays is shared across the political spectrum, and although homosexuality is not specifically illegal, sodomy is deemed a criminal act. This has not stopped police from arresting lesbians, Hofisi said, nor from arresting people who are deemed gay, even if there is no evidence that they have engaged in homosexual acts.
"We know Mugabe always uses this subject to divert attention away from other issues like poverty, lack of jobs and corruption," Monica Tabengwe, a lawyer and researcher for Human Rights Watch who has written several papers on the plight of Zimbabwe's gay community, told IRIN.
"You would think that under other circumstances these would be the things that people are concerned about. But the subject of homosexuality gets people's attention ... The moral panic this creates always works," she said.