HARARE, Zimbabwe — A women's activism group said Friday Zimbabwe police fired tear gas and baton charged to disperse Valentine's Day marchers, herding 195 people demonstrators into a police precinct. Later 25 were treated for injuries including broken teeth.
The Women of Zimbabwe Arise leader Jenni Williams said all but one – who was accused of indecent exposure – were released without charge.
The group traditionally marks Valentine's Day with marches in Harare and the second city of Bulawayo to give out red roses and teddy bears as symbols of peace and love in a nation troubled by years of human rights violations and economic meltdown.
Williams said protesters marched to government buildings to peacefully voice concerns about women's rights in the proposed new constitution, which will be voted on in a national referendum.
The women's activist group regularly protests social injustices, cost of living increases and food shortages.
Under the nation's sweeping security laws public gatherings require police clearance.
In the past WOZA members have been arrested for drumming kitchen utensils on pots and pans to draw attention to what they call "bread and butter" household issues.
Williams told The Associated Press on Friday the Valentine's Day protests were dispersed with "indiscriminate use of force" and passers-by and crying children had to flee the tear gas fired by police
Amnesty International said the police action coincided with a government announcement that set March 16 as date for a referendum on the constitution, followed by elections later this year.
The violent police response to the women's marches "sounds yet another alarm bell for the exercise of internationally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in advance of the referendum and elections," said Amnesty's Southern Africa director Noel Kututwa.
He said continuing attacks by police on Zimbabwean human rights defenders cast doubt on the country's ability to hold credible polls.
"Zimbabwe is entering a critical period in its democratization process and these blatant attempts to silence and intimidate critics must end," said Kututwa.
The clampdown on the Valentine's Day marches follows a police raid Monday on the offices of the respected Zimbabwe Peace Project group that monitors political violence and intimidation, that is mainly blamed on President Robert Mugabe's loyalist police and military.
Last month, the head of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, Okay Machisa, spent nearly three weeks in jail after being denied bail on charges of illegally possessing voter registration forms and materials. His group, which monitors voting practices, denies any wrongdoing.