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SALC statement on the attacks on human rights defenders and journalists in Zimbabwe

With the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ rights 68th Ordinary Session taking place from 14 April to 4 May 2021, the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) wishes to highlight the continued harassment and persecution of journalists and human rights defenders in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe adopted a new Constitution in 2013, including a comprehensive Bill of Rights with specific provisions promoting and protecting the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Although Zimbabwe has ratified both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women, the country still faces enormous challenges in guaranteeing the protected rights enshrined in these instruments, furthermore, Zimbabwe is yet to ratify the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

In May 2020, three opposition party youth leaders, Joana Mamombe (MP for Harare West), Cecilia Chimbiri (MDC Alliance Youth Assembly Vice-Chair) and Netsai Marova (Deputy Organising Secretary for Youth), were arrested and charged with falsifying their abduction and torture at the hands of suspected state security agents.

Instead of investigating allegations of torture and abduction, the State persecuted the women for exercising their constitutional rights. Since May 2020, the three women have been charged with subverting the constitutional government, contravening the lockdown regulations, publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State and undermining police authority. In a recent decision by the High Court, two of the three women were denied bail for the charge of contravening lockdown regulations. These lockdown regulations are themselves disproportionate, including punishing the publication of false news with up to 20 years’ imprisonment. They were charged after making a press statement related to the arrest and detention of Makomborero Haruzivishe and alleged police brutality, and calling for the resignation of the Commissioner-General of the Zimbabwe Republic Police. These arrests create an environment of fear that aims to deter young women from criticising the government and brings into question the independence of the judiciary.

The State has further arrested several people on charges of undermining the authority or insulting the President. On 8 January 2021, the journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested and charged with “communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the state” in contravention of section 31(a)(iii) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. He was subsequently remanded in custody and denied bail. Job Sikhala, Chin’ono’s defence lawyer, was arrested on 9 January 2021 and charged with the same offence. He was remanded in custody and denied bail. Fadzayi Mahere was arrested on 11 January 2021 for the same offence and was granted bail after spending a week in remand prison.

The prosecutions and detentions are more egregious since the offence with which they are charged was struck down as inconsistent with the Constitution by the Supreme Court on 30 October 2013, in the case of Chimakure and Another v Attorney General. Subsequently, in July 2014, the Constitutional Court confirmed the Supreme Court order and restated that section 31(a)(iii) is unconstitutional and therefore void. Chin’ono’s arrest in January was his third arrest in six months after his initial arrest in July 2020 for allegedly inciting Zimbabweans to revolt against the government and later in November 2020 for allegedly defeating or obstructing the course of justice. Although Hopewell and Job were initially denied bail, they were eventually granted bail on appeal.

SALC would like to commend the African Commission’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, adopted in November 2019 (the Declaration), which specifically calls on States to repeal laws that criminalise sedition, insult and publication of false news. The Declaration further calls on States to prevent attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, including kidnapping, torture, intimidation and arbitrary arrest and detention, and to prosecute perpetrators of such attacks.

SALC calls upon the Government of Zimbabwe to respect citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the media and to implement the recommendations as stipulated in the Declaration. We further call on the State to uphold the rule of law, investigate the allegations of brutality against human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists, and refrain from using public health laws and unconstitutional offences to persecute persons critical of the State.

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