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Zimbabwe: Student thought he was going to die after ‘abduction by state security services’ | World News

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Sleep does not come easily to 22-year-old Tawanda Muchehiwa. Sometimes it arrives as the morning sun appears but there are days when his mind will not allow him any peace.

The horror he says he experienced over three fateful days in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe has not subsided.

He replays his abduction like a piece of music on repeat, seeking meaning from an experience that he does not understand.

“When I hear a knock or someone walking outside, I become really scared, I have anxiety and panic attacks,” he says as his fingers visibly shake.

Tawanda Muchehiwa says 'when I hear a knock or someone walking outside, I become really scared'
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Mr Muchehiwa says ‘when I hear a knock or someone walking outside, I become really scared’

“(My captors) say that if I tell the world about my ordeal, they were going to come after me and the next thing I was going to see is my coffin.”

Mr Muchehiwa says he does not know why a group of muscular-looking men, occupying five or more vehicles, came looking for him at a local hardware shop.

He went there on 30 July to pick up some aluminium sheeting with his nephews in what seemed like a thoroughly unremarkable expedition.

He was chatting in the car park with an acquaintance from Zimbabwe’s opposition MDC party, when he says the men pounced upon him.

“There comes a tall man wearing a light blue T-shirt and he just yelled ‘wasungwa’ – it’s a Shona word that means ‘you have been arrested’ and before I know it the man is dragging me out of the car… I tried to say, ‘warrant of arrest, warrant of arrest?’

“But they bundled me up, just picked me up like a light thing and bundled me in their car.”

Mr Muchehiwa says he was abducted outside a local hardware shop
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Mr Muchehiwa says he was abducted outside a local hardware shop

Mr Muchehiwa thinks the men were members of the state security services, a group who have been held responsible by civil rights groups for the abduction of dozens of activists, critics and union officials in recent years.

However, this is the first alleged abduction in Zimbabwe to be caught on camera.

Grainy CCTV pictures appear to show Mr Muchehiwa being forced into a car outside the hardware shop, then transferred into another vehicle 400 metres down the street.

“They pointed a AK-47 (at) my head and they said, if you scream or raise your head, we’ll going to pull the trigger, we are going to shoot you right now,” says the 22-year old.

“One of the guys was sitting on my stomach and the other one was sitting on my head. Then there (was) a moment when I started complaining that I can’t breathe.

“Then one of the guys punched me hard and said, ‘you are not George Floyd and this is Zimbabwe – not America and anyway, we don’t want you to breathe’.”

Grainy CCTV pictures appear to show Mr Muchehiwa being transferred into a second vehicle nearby
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Grainy CCTV pictures appear to show Mr Muchehiwa being transferred into a second vehicle nearby

It is not clear why this second-year media studies student was targeted by what he believes to be around 15 men in plain clothes. However, Mr Muchehiwa thinks the date of his disappearance is significant.

The following day, on 31 July, opposition activists planned a nationwide anti-corruption protest.

The country’s president, Emerson Mnangagwa, labelled the demonstrations “an insurrection” and the army and police were moved onto the streets.

Mr Muchehiwa says his captors accused him of being one of the protest’s coordinators. Additionally, they wanted information about his uncle, Mdududzi Mathuthu, who edits an independent news site called ‘Zimlive’.

He said: “They wanted to know his sources of information, where does his newspaper get his funding. They also believed that he worked for the Americans and the British and through him they were saying I had also been recruited to become part of the CIA – you know it was so ridiculous.”

Mr Muchehiwa says he was driven to a dusty clearing outside the city – a hardscrabble patch where he believed he was going to die.

“I got (out of) the car, then they said kneel down, one of the guys pointed an AK-47 (at) my head and then they said make your last prayer … I accepted my own death. I was really convinced I was now going to die. Then one of the guys said to me after my long prayer, we are not going to kill you now, we must torture first.”

Mr Muchehiwa says he was strung up on a v-shaped tree and his buttocks and the bottom of his feet were flailed with sticks.

When he was untied, he claims his captors sexually humiliated him.

“They then did something I still am not comfortable to talk about, sometimes you are the one who is abused, at the end of the day you are the one who has to live with the shame.”

The 22-year old says he was taken to a farmhouse where the interrogation continued for the next two days.

He recalls the beatings and the ‘stress tests’ – like sitting on imaginary stools. These tests would generally end in more beatings.

He says he was forced to chant slogans from the ruling ZANU-PF party and told to drink his own blood-stained urine.

As the hours passed, Tawanda says his captors became increasingly impatient.

“They were beating me up and at some point they receive a call, I believe it is from one of the bosses and they are discussing, Tawanda is only 22 years old, we should get rid of him, just imagine if he gets to 30 he will give us a lot of problems so we should just get rid of him now and forever.”

It was on the afternoon of 1 August that a local human rights lawyer by the name of Nqobani Sithole thinks he saved the student’s life.

He obtained a court order – a writ of habeas corpus – which forced the police to find Tawanda Muchehiwa and present him at a local court.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa took power in 2017
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Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa called recent anti-corruption demonstrations ‘an insurrection’

The lawyer says a representative from the Zimbabwean attorney general’s office was present and informed him after lengthy discussions that Mr Muchehiwa could be produced within 72 hours.

Nqobani Sithole says: “As much as we knew that he’d been taken by the police and state security agents, they pretended to have no knowledge about it and we knew that something was not right.

“They (had) to be compelled by a high court order to bring back Tawanda Muchehiwa and fortunately they did so.”

The 22-year old says he was loaded into a car and driven back to Bulawayo.

At police checkpoints, Mr Muchehiwa says his captors identified themselves as “ferrets”, the name of a purported police unit that has been linked by human rights lawyers and civil rights groups to civilian abductions.

The media studies student was dumped on the outskirts of the city just before midnight on 1 August and ordered to run in the direction of his home.

Before the vehicle door was opened, however, he says they issued a series of threats.

“(They said) you shouldn’t say a word about happened to you. If you say a word about your ordeal we are going to kill you. They also said I shouldn’t go to hospital… or they will finish me off.”

Tawanda Muchehiwa says he has panic and anxiety attacks
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Tawanda Muchehiwa says he has panic and anxiety attacks

Still, he did not have a choice.

His body was battered, he had suffered from incisions on his chest and the skin from his right buttock had been removed. Furthermore, hospital records show that his kidneys were barely functioning.

“I still don’t believe I that am alive. I still don’t believe that I survived the ordeal. I still think that at some point these people they will catch up with me and finish me off… it’s quite difficult to comprehend.”

We sought a response to Mr Muchehiwa’s allegations from the Zimbabwean authorities but they did not respond to our enquiries.

In the past, a government spokesman has accused individuals of faking abductions in attempts to solicit funds from Western governments and human rights organisations.

Tawanda Muchehiwa has turned his back on his studies and gone into hiding. He nurses wounds, both physical and psychological, that he may never recover from.

Who are ‘the ferrets’?

Tawanda Muchehiwa says he was seized and tortured by members of a state security unit called the ‘ferrets’.

“We got to police checkpoints and when you get to police checkpoints you think maybe this is where I am going to get help but these people would just say ‘ferrets’ and they pass… at some points they would harass the police, harass the soldiers in the road and you would wonder, who are these people with so much power?”

The so-called ‘ferret team’ is thought to be a state security organisation comprising of members of the military, police and CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation).

Their existence was first revealed in court last year when six men using balaclavas and AK-47 rifles conducted a raid on a bar which belonged to a member of the military.

The men were arrested and one team member, Sergeant Wellington Mushosho, said they were under orders to “harass (opposition) MDC members.”

Human rights lawyers and civil rights campaigners believe the ‘ferret team’ has been deliberately created outside the legal framework.

One prominent activist said: “It is basically a hit squad whose primary role is the abduction of civilians. The way they have been set up means it is very hard to hold them accountable.”

The selection of targets is believed to be largely political.

Opposition politicians, activists and union officials are thought to be vulnerable. Civilians are handed over to the police when ferret team members have finished the interrogation process, said one lawyer.

Musa Kika, who heads the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, says 14 civilians have been abducted this year with a total of 105 abductions being recorded since the end of 2017.

Sky News has attempted to contact the Zimbabwean government and the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) about the ‘ferret team’ but they have not responded to our enquiries.

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Coronavirus: Yodellers reject blame for ‘one of Europe’s worst COVID outbreaks’ | World News

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The cast of a yodelling musical have rejected blame for a COVID-19 outbreak dubbed one of the worst in Europe.

The performances in Schwyz, Switzerland, were attended by 600 fans at the end of September – and coronavirus cases there have more than doubled to 1,238 since the middle of that month.

With an infection rate of 408 cases per 100,000 people, it is now the worst-hit region in Switzerland.

But a cast member from “Forever and Always”, which enforced social distancing but did not require attendees to wear face masks, has dismissed the idea that the yodellers are responsible as “pure slander”.

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A yodelling musical is being blamed for the worst coronavirus cluster in Switzerland.
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Yodel musical ‘Forever and Always’ has delayed the rest of its tour due to the pandemic. Pic: Jodelmusical

Erwin Bertschy admitted three other performers had tested positive for COVID-19 five days after the shows, but said the organisers had a “protection concept that was adhered to”.

“At the same time, the restaurants were open all night and they were full to the brim,” he told Sky News. “But it’s easier to blame an external organiser.”

Fellow cast member Maja Keller-Roth agreed, saying there were other events during that weekend in Schwyz where people could have caught the virus.

“We think it’s a shame and sad that the media are now dragging us through the mud,” she told Sky News.

Beat Hegner, the managing director of the venue that hosted the performances, appeared to accept some responsibility when he told a Swiss TV channel: “We couldn’t help what happened with this yodelling group.

“We learned nine days after the performances that several people in the troupe were infected. From there, we couldn’t control the chain of infection.”

Some scientists have suggested singing could spread the virus via airborne droplets.

A yodelling musical is being blamed for the worst coronavirus cluster in Switzerland.
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Erwin Bertschy (far left) did not test positive for the virus, but three of his fellow performers did. Pic: Jodelmusical

Intensive care wards are filling up at Schwyz hospital, prompting one of its directors, Franziska Follmi, to warn that the hospital “can’t manage” if the rise in cases continues.

“The explosion in the number of cases in Schwyz is one of the worst in all of Europe,” said Reto Nuesch in a video appealing to the public.

“It is time for you, the population, to react. Wear masks, stop partying.”

He took aim at the local government, saying that “the measures were not formulated clearly enough until now”.

The local government only announced on Monday that masks would become compulsory for all public and private events of more than 50 people.

Switzerland’s federal system gives leeway to its regions – known as cantons – to set health policy.

A yodelling musical is being blamed for the worst coronavirus cluster in Switzerland.
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Maja Keller-Roth said it’s a ‘shame’ the musical is being blamed for rising coronavirus cases. Pic: Jodelmusical

In a sign of a second wave, the country reported another daily record of 3,105 new coronavirus cases on Friday.

The Alpine nation has confirmed more than 71,000 cases in total and over 1,800 deaths.

Geneva this week limited public gatherings to 100 people, and now requires contact details to be taken for events of more than 15 people.

“If we don’t get a handle on this, we run the risk of getting into a situation that’s harder to control,” said Bertrand Levrat, general director of Geneva Hospitals.

“We are really at a turning point – things can go both ways.”

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France terror attack: Beheading of teacher heightens debate about Islamist terrorism and freedom of speech | World News

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Conflans-Saint-Honorine is a place like many others. In the outer suburbs of Paris, it is a pleasant but unremarkable grid of homes and amenities. 

And yet now, it finds itself at the very heart of the French national debate after a truly horrific murder on its streets.

Samuel Paty, 47, a well-respected teacher, was attacked and beheaded as he walked along the street at 5pm. His killer, aged just 18, was then shot dead by police as he walked along a neighbouring road.

Mr Paty is understood to be a 47-year-old history teacher
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Mr Paty had held a classroom discussion over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad before his death
Police officers secure the area near the scene of a stabbing attack in the Paris suburb of Conflans St Honorine, France, October 16, 2020
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Police officers pictured at the scene of the stabbing on Friday evening

Within hours, President Emmanuel Macron was on the scene, visiting the school where Mr Paty taught history and geography.

Macron normally likes to deliver long, impassioned speeches, but here his address was briefer and more restrained. He looked stunned but called for unity, while describing the murder as an act of “Islamist terror”. The education minister, Jean-Michael Blanquer, described the killing as an attack on the French Republic.

At the school where Mr Paty taught, there was a long line of teachers, parents and students on Saturday, coming to pay respects, laying flowers and leaving notes. The school, which was ringed by a line of French CRS riot police, also provided psychological support for those affected by what had happened.

Some carried signs saying “Je Suis Enseignant” (I am a teacher) in tribute to Mr Paty. Online, the similar expression “Je Suis Prof” was being widely shared.

The impact of this upon the school community will be great. But it is also affecting France, a country that has struggled enormously to cope with the effects of Islamist terrorism in recent years.

It is five years since gunmen broke into the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. More died in the following days, the precursor to a wave of terrorist attacks across France that killed hundreds.

In Paris, the trial is now under way of men and women accused of being accomplices in those first attacks. As the trial started, Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as an exercise in free speech.

Others called it inflammatory, even reckless. Not long after, the magazine’s existing head of human resources was moved out of her home on police advice.

Last month, a man attacked two people outside the former offices of Charlie Hebdo; both suffered serious but not life-threatening injuries. And all the while, the trial continues.

Now, this murder will heighten again the question of Islamist terrorism, and its causes. It seems quite clear that there is a link between the killing of the teacher, and Mr Paty’s decision to launch a classroom discussion over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

A teacher stands with a placard reading 'I am a teacher, I defend the freedom of speech, I fight for our work conditions and against all kind of racism' near the entrance of a middle school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, 30kms northwest of Paris, on October 17, 2020, after a teacher was decapitated by an attacker who has been shot dead by policemen
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‘I am a teacher, I defend the freedom of speech, I fight for our work conditions and against all kind of racism’
Flowers have been placed at the entrance of a middle school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, 30kms northwest of Paris, on October 17, 2020, after a teacher was decapitated by an attacker who has been shot dead by policemen
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Flowers have been left outside Mr Paty’s school

So what to do? In a country that puts such a value on free speech and secular government, the right to insult is entrenched. But the fury sparked by these cartoons has now cost many lives, and heightened tensions dangerously.

Into this quandary walked the local mayor, Laurent Brosse. He was born and bred in this town.

“I want to tell the locals that we will recover,” he said. “We will all rise together. We will rise again thanks to our spirit of solidarity which makes the uniqueness of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine.

“It is by debating, exchanging opinions and listening that we will be able to overcome this dramatic test.”

But there has been a lot of talking in France over recent years in search of an answer, to work out how to preserve the fundamental tenets of French society while also stemming the rise of Islamist terrorism.

Judging by this horrific attack, the puzzle has not been solved.

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Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Armenia accused of killing 13 people with missile strike on Azerbaijan | World News

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At least 13 people are said to have been killed in a missile strike on the second-largest city in Azerbaijan, as the conflict with Armenia continues.

Azerbaijani officials said Armenia was responsible for the deaths and the wounding of 50 others in Ganja, in an escalation of their conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Armenia’s defence ministry denied launching the strike and separatist authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh stopped short of claiming responsibility, but alleged they were “legitimate” military facilities.

Search and rescue teams work on a blast site hit by a rocket in the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan
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Search and rescue teams work on a blast site hit by a rocket in the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan

Azerbaijani officials said about 20 residential buildings were damaged or destroyed by a Soviet-made Scud missile, and emergency workers spent hours searching in the rubble.

Scud missiles date back to the 1960s and carry a large warhead of explosives, but are known for their lack of precision.

Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, said the missile strike was a war crime and warned Armenia it would face responsibility for it, having already condemned another apparent strike on Ganja this month.

“Azerbaijan will give its response and it will do so exclusively on the battlefield,” Mr Aliyev said.

While authorities in both Azerbaijan and Armenia have denied targeting civilians, residential areas have increasingly come under attack during a conflict thought to have killed upwards of 600 people as of earlier this week.

Stepanakert – the regional capital of Nagorno-Karabakh – was shelled overnight, with three civilians wounded, according to separatist authorities.

An injured man sits on a bench near a hospital in Stepanakert in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh
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An injured man sits on a bench near a hospital in Stepanakert in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan, but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994.

Mr Aliyev announced that Azerbaijani forces had captured the town of Fizuli and seven other villages, gaining a “strategic edge”.

Fizuli is one of the seven Azerbaijani areas outside Nagorno-Karabakh seized by Armenian forces in the early 1990s.

Relatives  carry the coffins of victims of a rocket attack during their funeral in the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan
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Relatives carry the coffins of victims of a rocket attack during their funeral in Ganja

Armenia and Azerbaijan were both within the Soviet Union until its break-up at the start of the 1990s, and both have remained on friendly terms with Russia.

More than 10 hours of talks brokered by Russia ended with a ceasefire, but the agreement immediately failed, with both sides blaming each other.

Turkish support for the Azerbaijani military has given it an edge on the battlefield, helping them outgun the Armenian forces that rely mostly on outdated Soviet-era weapons.

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