THE past few months have seen opposition political activists, human rights defenders, journalists and civil society organisation employees being brought before the courts charged with various crimes, ranging from “inciting public violence”, “obstructing the course of justice” and other related charges.

The State often prefers these charges against critiques of government and those who express dissent.

Terminology such as lawfare and criminalising human rights defence work have dominated both online and offline conversations as the people lament the escalating crackdown on civic space, and repression characterised by arrests, detention and trial of those who choose to speak truth to power. The use of the law as a tool to target dissent should be seen in the broader context of a government which does not tolerate any form of protest or disagreement.

Weaponising the law to suppress the voices of individuals and groups who challenge those in power is not a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe. It is, however, seasonal, reaching its peak during the election cycle. Zimbabwe is in its pre-election season with elections expected to take place in mid-2023. The authorities target dissent ahead of the election by misusing the criminal justice system to bring trumped up charges, multiple and protracted trials against individuals, deny access to lawyers, and deny bail applications.

The most common charges by the State include inciting public violence, a charge preferred against those who call for solidarity and action to protest government policies and actions, publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the State — for those who expose malfeasance, obstructing the course of justice and subverting a constitutionally elected government. The objective of authorities in using the law is to harass, intimidate, silence, and stigmatise human rights and political activism.

History is replete with cases whereby the law has been used to harass and silence political activists and human rights defenders. The cases involving Job Sikhala, an MP with Citizens Coalition for Change(CCC), Hopewell Chin’ono, freelance journalist, Obert Masaraure, President of Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, Joanna Mamombe, Cecelia Chimbiri and Netsai Marowo (political activists in the CCC) illustrate how the law has been used as a tool to silence dissent and discourage activism in recent times. They have all been facing all kinds of trumped-up charges related to their activism work, designed to frustrate and silence them.

Joanna, Cecelia and Netsai are facing multiple charges stemming from “contravening COVID-19 regulations”, “inciting violence”, and “publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the State” for standing up for the economic and social rights for the poor during the pandemic. Shockingly the charge on publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the State arose after they were reportedly abducted and tortured after leading a protest. Their only crime was to recount their ordeal. The case has been turned against them and they are now being accused of faking their abductions. Instead of using the law to get justice for the three political activists the authorities have used the law to punish and stigmatise them.

Sikhala’s case typifies how authorities have been using the law to harass members of the opposition in Zimbabwe. He has appeared before the courts facing charges ranging from inciting public violence, publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the State and obstructing the course of justice. In January 2021, he was denied bail by the Magistrate Court in a case where he was accused of publishing or communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the State which was presided over by regional magistrate Ngoni Nduna. The magistrate’s ruling was subsequently overturned by the High Court which noted that the court had erred by denying Sikhala bail on the basis that he had the propensity to commit crimes.

In June 2022 together with fellow legislator Godfrey Sithole, Sikhala was once again arrested and charged with inciting public violence following utterances he made in connection with the murder of Moreblessing Ali, another CCC activist. They were denied bail by both the Magistrate Court and High Court on the basis that they would cause public disorder. A few days after being denied bail Sikhala was slapped with fresh charges of obstructing the course of justice linked to the Moreblessing Ali case. He was once again arraigned before the same magistrate who had denied him bail in 2021. His lawyers successfully applied for the recusal of the magistrate on the basis that he would not exercise impartiality.

Masaraure‘s case highlights how the authorities use the law to persecute human rights defenders. He has been on the forefront of championing the rights of teachers, consistently demanding for improvement in their conditions of service.

He has been in and out of prison on trumped-up or frivolous charges. In June 2022 he was arrested, detained and charged with murder in a case his colleague died in 2016, even though a court ruled out foul play in an inquest. Upon being released on bail he was slapped with fresh charges and denied bail.

Renowned journalist Hopewell is facing charges for exposing allegations of corruption and the plunder of public resources by the ruling elite.

The foregoing demonstrates how the State prefers multiple charges against critiques and deny them bail as a way of punishing them. The use of lawfare has a chilling effect on activism and the defence of human rights. Not only that this is weaponising the law to silence political activists and human rights activist, but also meant to discourage those who may want to express dissent. Zimbabwean authorities must stop misusing the justice system to persecute the opposition and activists for exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The authorities must stop using the police and courts to silence peaceful dissent. Instead, they must use the law to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the human rights of everyone.

Source Newsday