Zimbabwe: journalist and lawyers detained for exercising their rights to free expression must be released
The ICJ today condemned the arbitrary arrests in recent days of prominent Zimbabwean human rights defenders Hopewell Chin’ono, Fadzayi Mahere and Job Sikhala, who have been critical of the government led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The ICJ is concerned that their arrests and potential prosecutions are based solely on their exercise of protected human rights, including freedom of expression. The ICJ calls for their immediate release and the dropping of the charges against them.
The three have been charged with contravening section 31 of the Criminal Code which prohibits “publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the state”.
The alleged offences arise from posts made on social media and comments issued by all three in connection with an incident at a Harare taxi rank in which a police officer is alleged to have assaulted a mother with a baby on her back.
ICJ’s Africa Director Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh said:
“The use of judicial processes to silence these three human rights defenders constitutes a continuing assault on members of the bar and journalists and is a clear attempt to chill others from carrying out their professional functions when these activities offend government authorities. Of concern is the continued use of criminal defamation (section 31) charges which were declared unconstitutional in 2014 yet continues to be weaponised against human rights defenders.”
Chin’ono, a journalist, was arrested on 8 January and had his application for bail rejected on 14 January. He has been handcuffed and held in leg irons during court appearances, despite a Magistrate’s ruling on 12 January that forcing Chin’ono to be shackled in leg irons and handcuffing him amounts to inhumane and degrading treatment.
Mahere is a lawyer and spokesperson of the opposition political party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance. She was arrested on 11 January. On 15 January Magistrate Trynos Utahwashe failed to hand down his ruling on her application for bail as required.
Bail was however granted today. Mahere did raise concerns about the absence of essential COVID-19 measures in her detention, including the lack of temperature checks or sanitisers at the entrance to the police station; the failure to practice social distancing in the waiting area or holding cells; the unavailability of masks in the cells and use of old masks by cellmates; as well as the failure to provide sanitary materials to female inmates.
Sikhala is a human rights lawyer, the MDC Alliance Vice National Chairperson, and MP for Zengeza West.
He was part of Chin’ono’s legal team. On 15 January Magistrate Ngoni Nduna dismissed his bail application stating that there was overwhelming evidence against him not to grant it. He remains in prison custody while he awaits trial. Sikhala has also been handcuffed and held in leg irons during court appearances.
“The courts have unlawfully employed the denial of bail as well as the repeated prolonged bail proceedings as a punitive tool in these cases. Pre-trial detention without the opportunity for bail, with exceptions not applicable here, is a violation of the right to liberty. The government has an obligation to provide safe and humane conditions of detention.”
The ICJ recalls that that Zimbabwe’s Constitution guarantees the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the media (Article 61); freedom from arbitrary detention (Article 50). Zimbabwe has an international legal obligation to protect these rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 9 and 19) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Articles 6 and 9).
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Director of ICJ Africa Programme, e: Kaajal.Keogh(a)icj.org ; t: +27845148039
Tanveer Jeewa, Legal and Communications Consultant, e: Tanveer.Jeewa(a)icj.org
Hopewell Chin’ono has been arrested on three separate occasions. He has been denied bail on each occasion and those bail proceedings have been unduly and unfairly prolonged. He was initially arrested in July 2020 after he expressed support on Twitter for an anti-corruption protest, which was planned for 31 July. He was charged with incitement to participate in public violence and breaching anti-corona virus health regulations.
He appeared in court three times to apply for bail and was only granted bail in September 2020, nearly two months after his arrest. On 3 November 2020, he was re-arrested for contempt of court for allegedly violating section 182(1)(a) or (b) of the Criminal Code because of a tweet he posted. His tweet stated: “On day of bail hearing CJ was seen leaving court in light of what has been said by judges what does this say.” The arrest violates Zimbabwe’s constitutional provisions, in particular, section 61, which provides for freedom of expression and the right of a journalist to practice his profession. He was again arrested on 8 January 2021 for allegedly communicating falsehoods by tweeting that police beat a baby to death.
Chin’ono was in 2020 denied access to the legal representative of his choice. The magistrate’s order barring lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa from continuing as defence legal counsel for Chin’ono violated his right to a fair trial and Mtetwa’s right to express her opinions freely. See ICJ’s statement of 21 August 2020.NewsWeb stories