Zimbabwe has come under international scrutiny after President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government launched a crackdown against its critics that include opposition leaders, lawyers and journalists.
Police have in recent weeks arrested prominent opposition leaders including MDC Alliance vice-presidents Tendai Biti and Lynette Karenyi-Kore on allegations of violating Covid-19 lockdown regulations.
They also arrested Nelson Chamisa’s lawyers Thabani Mpofu and Sylvester Hashiti, among a host of other legal practitioners, over a litany of what has been described as trumped-up charges.
A group of United Nations human rights experts last week spoke out against “a reported pattern of disappearances and torture” by security agents as pressure mounted on Mnangagwa to stop the alleged crackdown against his opponents.
The Africa Judges and Jurists Forum (AJJF), a pan-African network of judges and jurists, has since added its voices to the chorus of condemnation of Mnangagwa’s government, saying respect for the rule of law and press freedom are important ingredients to a democratic state.
AJJF urged the government to ensure that the operating space for journalists and lawyers is fully respected and that lawyers should, as a matter of both policy and practice, be not associated with the causes of their clients.
“A pattern of intimidation and arbitrary arrest and detention of lawyers and journalists and indeed legitimate political opponents has distinctly emerged in Zimbabwe during the Covid-19 era,” said Martin Okumu-Masiga, the AJJF secretary-general.
“We are particularly concerned that a number of them have been charged with ‘defeating or obstructing’ the course of justice or under the guise of contravening Covid-19 lockdown measures during the performance of their professional duties.”
Recently, several eminent lawyers and journalists have been arrested and criminally charged in Zimbabwe.
Last month police arrested journalists Frank Chikowore and Samuel Takawira for allegedly breaking Covid-19 regulations after they visited three MDC Alliance three female youth activists, who were admitted at a private hospital in Harare.
Harare West MP Joana Mamombe (MP), Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova were being treated for injuries sustained after they were allegedly abducted and tortured by suspected security agents.
Beatific Ngumbwanda, a reporter for the weekly TellZim, was also arrested in Chiredzi while Alpha Media Holdings correspondent Nunurai Jena was arrested in Chinhoyi and Tatenda Julius, a New Ziana reporter, was detained in Harare for allegedly violating the lockdown regulations.
Mpofu, who represented Chamisa in a number of cases including the presidential election petition where he was challenging Mnangagwa’s controversial election victory in 2018, was charged together with other lawyers Choice Damiso, Tapiwa Makanza and Joshua Chirambwe for allegedly obstructing the course of justice.
The lawyers are accused of falsifying documents in a legal matter in which they represented a citizen, Simbarashe Zuze, who was challenging the legality of the appointment of prosecutor-general Kumbirai Hodzi by Mnangagwa.
Police claimed Zuze did not exist despite indications that he was once interviewed by the Zimbabwe Republic Police’s law and order section.
Hashiti, who was among the lawyers that represented Chamisa in the election petition, was arrested on criminal insult charges after he allegedly accused a prosecutor of receiving a bribe.
AJJF urged the government to stop the alleged harassment of lawyers and respect the rule of law.
“We urge the government of Zimbabwe to respect the rule of law and the right to freedom of expression and the right to fair trial as well as to respect the independence of judges and lawyers as is guaranteed by domestic and international obligations that the country is party to” said Okumu-Masiga.
“I draw the Zimbabwe government’s attention to principle 16 of the UN basic principles on the role of lawyers, which requires surety from governments that lawyers are afforded the space to perform all of their professional functions free from intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; nor may lawyers suffer or be threatened with prosecution, or administrative, economic or any other sanction for any action taken in light of the recognised professional duties, standards and ethics.”
Alex Magaisa, a former advisor of the late Morgan Tsvangirai during his stint as prime minister, said the international community must keep a close eye on Zimbabwe as the government crackdown against opponents could escalate.
“Already, the three MDC Alliance politicians who were abducted and tortured have been arrested on grounds that they allegedly faked their abductions,” Magaisa wrote on his latest Big Saturday Read blog.
“Sadc and the international community will have to watch closely events in Zimbabwe henceforth, as the heavy clampdown may just about to get worse.
“As already mentioned, Zimbabwe has been on this path before, with ominous outcomes.”
He was referring to a “bizarre” press conference addressed by Home Affairs minister Kazembe Kazembe “to dispel rumours” of an imminent coup.
Kazembe, flanked by military, intelligence and police chiefs, singled out former Local Government minister Saviour Kasukuwere and MDC Alliance vice-chairperson Job Sikhala as well as some church leaders as people behind the alleged rumours.
He warned that those peddling the rumours faced arrest, amid fears the government wanted to justify a wide crackdown against Mnangagwa’s opponents.
“The latest statement betrays a government that is growing increasingly paranoid in light of the deteriorating economic situation which has run out of control,” Magaisa added.
“They are seeing and fearing shadows. The anger among the people is rising and the government is growing uncomfortable.”
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (CiZC), a group of local civil society groups, said it was alarmed by the coup statement and expressed fears that the government could be seeking cover to target its perceived opponents.
“We are deeply worried and concerned that the tone and threats against opposition political activists, citizen activists, civil society organisations, churches and other pro-democratic forces, which amounts to a declaration of war on an already burdened and traumatised citizenry, threatens their security and undermines our collective capacity to address the multi-faceted crisis facing the country, and the economy nearing collapse while soaring Covid-19 infections and a growing sense of insecurity,” CiCZ said.
“We are concerned about the shrinking democratic space evidenced by abductions, arrests, persecution by the prosecution of civil society, lawyers and political opponents is inconsistent with (the government’s) assertion that Zimbabwe is stable and peaceful.
“The peacefulness they refer to is negative peace and is not sustainable in an environment of poverty and depravition.
“The inability of the state to bring to book perpetrators of human rights violations, shootings and abductions has adversely affected citizens’ trust in state institutions responsible for the administration of justice and their security.”
The groups said Zimbabwe badly needed political reforms to heal widening divisions.
“While acknowledging the importance of international re-engagement and readmission of Zimbabwe into the community of nations, we contend that Zimbabwe needs to re-engage with itself and its citizenry first,” CiZCadded.
“This should be done through a rigorous and selfless pursuit of reforms.
“More importantly, the ever-deteriorating economic conditions, further worsened by the lockdown, have adversely affected the livelihoods of the majority of citizens, who largely depend on the informal economy.
“This has and continues to affect the poorest of our communities without adequate safety nets to mitigate the effects.
“This has affected access to social services, education and health, further widening the gap between the rich and poor.
“We are further concerned about how the lockdown has been abused to close the democratic space and is being selectively applied by the authorities.”
Mnangagwa, who swept to power on the back of promises to turn Zimbabwe into a democracy following a coup against long-time ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017, is now accused of presiding over a system that is more brutal than that of his predecessor.
— The Standard