Zimbabwe: High Court Ruling Permits Gays And Lesbians in Bookfair

On the morning of July 31, 1996, Judge Wilson Sandura of the Zimbabwean High Court overturned a government order prohibiting the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) from participating in the 1996 Zimbabwe International Bookfair (ZIBF) thus allowing the group to participate in this year's fair. This ruling comes in the wake of the latest government frenzy of anti-homosexual bigotry and harassment and on the heels of President Mugabe's expulsion of GALZ from last year's bookfair. The government immediately sought a Supreme Court injunction against this decision claiming that the GALZ exhibition would "likely be associated with a breach of peace, disorder and immoral behavior." On August 2, however, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court's ruling, leaving GALZ to face the prospect of violence at the bookfair without any police protection.

GALZ members attended the bookfair on August 1, and while exhibiting no materials, engaged in discussions with the numerous people who gathered at their stand. On August 2, following the Supreme Court ruling, the GALZ booth was occupied by a hostile crowd led by public prosecutor Herbert Ushewokunze, and GALZ members avoided their stand until the following day. On August 3, GALZ had their booth relocated, in order to facilitate their swift escape in the event of an attack. GALZ members were later tipped off about impending violence, and were forced to vacate their stand. It is reported that a mob comprised mainly of University of Zimbabwe students then ransacked the GALZ stand, tore up and carried away literature, while the state police refused to intervene.

The Zimbabwe International Bookfair is the largest publishing showcase on the African continent, and drew up to 450 publishers from 40 countries last year. This year's five day fair opened its doors to traders on July 30 and closed on August 3. The intent of GALZ was to exhibit information on the intersections of human rights law and gay/lesbian rights in Zimbabwe, to publicize their counseling services, to distribute educational materials on HIV and AIDS, and to display Sahwira: Being Gay and Lesbian in Zimbabwe, a recently published anthology at the bookfair.

On July 29, the Censorship Board and Ministry of Home Affairs had issued a notice of prohibition keeping GALZ from participating in the Book Fair, citing Section 17 (1) of the Censorship and Entertainments Control Act. Section 17 (1) prohibits "the public exhibition or intended exhibition of any publication which is likely to be associated with breaches of the peace, disorderly or immoral behavior...." In response to this prohibition, GALZ immediately made an urgent application for an order against the prohibition, in which they argued that the Censorship Board had no legal basis for censoring materials which it has not seen.

GALZ had initially been granted permission to participate in this year's bookfair by the ZIBF Trust, which then received tremendous pressure from the Zimbabwean government for allowing the gay group to participate. The ZIBF's decision to allow GALZ to participate marks a significant departure from its position last year, which enforced the government's ban of the group from the 1995 bookfair. The Executive Director of the bookfair trust, Ms. Trish Mbanga has stated their commitment to exercising democracy, and has been unwavering in her refusal to expel GALZ from this year's bookfair.

The government's attempts to ban GALZ can be traced directly to the actions of the Director of Information, Mr. Bornwell Chakaodza, the same minister who issued the banning order last year. Mr. Chakaodza, with the support of right wing groups such as Sangomo Munhumutapa stated that "gay and lesbian activism would not be tolerated in Zimbabwe." The right wing group's opposition to GALZ was so strong, that they threatened to "raze down the stands and go to jail" if the gay group's table was allowed at the bookfair.

It is reported that several church organizations have publicly supported the participation of GALZ in the bookfair, stating that the organization's literature on AIDS would greatly benefit Zimbabwean society. The Zimbabwean Human Rights Commission (Zimrights), Legal Resource Foundation and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe have issued statements criticizing the government for having issued the banning order.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) is outraged by this state sanctioned incitement of violence against the Zimbabwean gay and lesbian movement. These recent acts are absolutely unconscionable, and we are deeply concerned about the safety of the members of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ). We implore the Zimbabwean government to ensure police protection of all its citizens, including members of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe.