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Two human rights defenders acquitted

OMCT-SOS Torture Network

Paris-Geneva, November 28, 2013. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an FIDH-OMCT joint programme, welcomes the acquittal of Mr. Abel Chikomo, Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (hereafter “the Forum”), a coalition of 20 Zimbabwean human rights organisations advocating against organised violence, torture and impunity in Zimbabwe, as well as the acquittal of Ms. Beatrice Mtetwa, a human rights lawyer and board member of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR).

On November 22, 2013, the Harare Magistrate Elijah Makomo acquitted Mr. Abel Chikomo of charges of “managing and controlling the operations of an illegal Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO)”, under Section 6(3) as read with Subsection 1 of the PVO Act (Chapter 17:15). Mr. Abel Chikomo had been charged since March 30, 2011, after the Forum conducted a Transitional Justice National Survey in Harare.

The acquittal of Mr. Abel Chikomo is to be welcomed.

 Yet, we must not forget that it comes after more than two years of an unfair judicial process and that it arises in a context of trivialisation of judicial harassment against human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. Time has come for the authorities to engage into a genuine political dialogue and cooperation with civil society organisations, which have a key role to play in the strengthening of the rule of law, democracy and justice in Zimbabwe” said Karim Lahidji, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

In addition, on November 26, 2013, Harare Magistrate Rumbidzai Mugwagwa finally acquitted Ms. Beatrice Mtetwa of charges of “obstructing the course of justice” under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, Section 184(1)(g). The charges had been brought against her after she reportedly rebuked the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) officers who searched – without a search warrant – the house of her client, Mr. Thabani Mpofu, Legal adviser of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, in March 2013. Ms. Mtetwa had been arrested on March 17, and had remained in police custody until she was granted bail on March 25.

It is somehow encouraging that judges show their independence and resilience against an obvious political abuse of the legal system by the authorities”, noted Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in a comment on the two acquittals. “Even more important is, however, to end the practice of prosecuting defenders on frivolous grounds with charges hanging over them for years as a Damocles swart. This chill tactic has to stop”, he added.

On November 26, Magistrate Mugwagwa found that Ms. Mtetwa had done nothing to interfere with police investigations, and blamed the police for having produced contradictory testimonies in the proceedings against Ms. Mtetwa.

In the case of Mr. Abel Chikomo, the prosecution had claimed that he had unlawfully mandated two employees of the Forum to conduct the Transitional Justice survey in Harare in violation of the PVO Act, on the grounds that the Forum was not formally registered. The latter was however acquitted after his defence argued that the Forum did not fall under the obligation to register under the PVO Act as it is an association and Common Law Universitas of 20 member organisations and as section 2 of the PVO Act exempts from registration “any body or association of persons, corporate or unincorporated, the benefits from which are exclusively for its own members”. Besides the defence’s arguments, two of the prosecution witnesses – Mr. Constable Chengetai Mugidwa and Mr. Sydney Mhishi – absolved Mr. Chikomo from any infringement of the PVO Act. Mr. Mugidwa, a police constable who arrested the two Forum’s employees, indicated that he was not an investigating officer and that he was not familiar with the PVO Act. Mr. Sydney Mhisi, Director of the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare further declared that he had been asked by the police to prepare affidavits on the registration status of the Forum, without having interacted with Mr. Chikomo nor having seen the Forum’s Constitution.

Beyond procedural irregularities, the judicial harassment against Ms. Beatrice Mtetwa and Mr. Abel Chikomo has illustrated the failures of the police system in Zimbabwe. The evidence gathered by the Observatory for the past few years suggests that police and security agents are often responsible for the arbitrary arrest, abduction, harassment or intimidation of human rights defenders, despite their duty to carry out their mandate in an impartial and professional way. In the light of the acquittal of Ms. Beatrice Mtetwa and Mr. Abel Chikomo, the Observatory reiterates its call to Zimbabwean authorities to ensure that police and security agents maintain law and order in a depoliticised way and that they are held accountable in case of human rights violations. More generally, Zimbabwe must ensure that the rights of human rights defenders as enshrined in the Constitution, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders or the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights are fully protected.

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