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Supporters of the Zimbabwean opposition party who had been beaten and tortured by police last month were denied medical care for days or were treated in the presence of their abusers by intimidated doctors, says the Zimbabwean Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR).
The group's chairman, Douglas Gwatidzo, treated the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change, two days after he was detained on 11 March in the township of Highfield, near Harare, during an opposition rally.
But Mr Tsvangirai had already been taken by police to the accident and emergency department of the government's Central Hospital after collapsing on the night of his arrest, the human rights group said. The department was cordoned off, and a junior medical officer on duty was made to examine him in the presence of armed police, without reference to senior colleagues.
Although Mr Tsvangirai had sustained multiple fractures and severe blood loss from a long scalp laceration, the junior medical officer treated him only “superficially,” ZADHR said, with the result that he lost consciousness again the next day from blood loss.
ZADHR is appealing to health professionals and others around the world to sign a petition urging Zimbabwean officials to refrain from denying citizens access to medical treatment.
The day after the demonstration, lawyers for the detained demonstrators won a court order requiring police to allow them to seek medical treatment, but police ignored it and held them overnight. The next morning, Judge Chinemberi Bhunu ordered the police to produce the detainees in court and reissued the order, whereupon the government complied.
The order specified that the detainees could seek treatment at the facility of their choice, and that afternoon 64 injured protestors appeared at Dr Gwatidzo's Avenues Clinic in Harare. Each was accompanied by two policemen.
More than 130 riot police armed with batons, shields, and pistols jammed the clinic's emergency room. When Mr Tsvangirai was treated, two policemen insisted on entering the cubicle with him, but Dr Gwatidzo refused. “They were very aggressive and threatening,” he told the US Congressional human rights caucus when he visited Washington, DC, two weeks ago to recount the events.
He told the policemen: “I will not examine any patient under duress. If you truly believe he can disappear, you can take me instead.” The Movement for Democratic Change has claimed that Mr Tsvangirai's treatment was intended to kill him.
Twenty of the detainees required admission to hospital. Injuries among the opposition leaders were more severe than those among the rank and file, said Dr Gwatidzo.
Two prominent opposition figures among the injured, Sekai Holland and Grace Kwinjeh, needed to be flown to South Africa for treatment. But they were again detained and then turned away by police at the airport, despite being heavily bandaged and on stretchers. They were eventually permitted to leave after another court battle.
Dr Gwatidzo had speculated that he might face harassment in Zimbabwe as a result of his testifying against the regime to a US Congressional panel, but speaking from Harare he told the BMJ that he has so far gone unmolested in the two weeks since his return.