When Zimbabwean lawmaker Job Sikhala settles down to sleep at night, he does so on the floor of an ageing maximum-security prison in Harare.

The 50-year-old opposition MP has been held in solitary for almost two months.

Jail is hardly a novel experience for the 50-year-old firebrand, who in a political career spanning more than two decades has been arrested 67 times but never been convicted, his lawyer says.

Under Robert Mugabe — a liberation hero who ruled with an iron fist for 37 years — the southern African country gained a long experience with arrests of dissenters and abuse.

But rights groups say the clampdown has stepped into new territory, often featuring repeated detentions and exceptionally harsh custody, as elections loom.

“It’s worse than under Mugabe right now,” Sikhala’s lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, told AFP.

The justice and information ministries as well as the national prosecuting authority did not respond to an AFP request for comment.

Sikhala was arrested in June along with fellow opposition politician and lawmaker Godfrey Sithole over a speech he gave at the memorial service for another opposition activist whose mutilated body was found in a well days earlier.

A practising lawyer, Sikhala told mourners that the woman’s spirit would come back to avenge her death, his lawyer said.

The day was marked by what police has described as an “orgy of public violence.”

– ‘Travesty’ –

Supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party reportedly harassed funeral-goers. In turn, opponents torched the house of a ruling party official.

Sikhala was charged with inciting violence and obstructing the course of justice over his speech and for having allegedly suggested that ZANU-PF members were behind the murder.

Police have arrested a man they say was the victim’s ex-lover over the killing.

Sikhala’s lawyers have denied any link between their client and the violence.

Amnesty International has described the case as “political” and a “travesty of justice”.

The rights group’s director for Zimbabwe, Lucia Masuka, told AFP the case is part of a pattern that has seen a string of opposition figures arrested in recent years, often on charges of inciting violence.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of rights groups, logged 114 cases of arbitrary arrest across the country in the first six months of this year alone.

High-profile cases include award-winning novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga who was arrested in 2020 over a protest and three young female activists held the same year on accusations of having faked their own abduction.

– Anger over economy –

The crackdown comes as the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced Mugabe in 2017, is struggling to rein in inflation which reached more than 250 percent in July, end Zimbabwe’s chronic power cuts and ease entrenched poverty.

General elections are due to be held in 2023, at a date that is likely to be in the first half of the year.

Mtetwa, a veteran defender of dissenters in Zimbabwe, said she expected the situation to worsen as the vote neared. “There is no question about it,” she said.

“There’s an economic meltdown, things are not working at all,” said Masuka. “People are disgruntled”.

By going after the likes of Sikhala, the government was sending a message to discourage others who might want to engage in activism and speak out, Masuka said.

“He has to sleep on the floor and we have had a very cold winter,” said Mtetwa.

Sikhala is being held in a single cell typically used for prisoners considered dangerous, she said, and was shackled every time he changed location.

An activist in the Movement for Democratic Change and now a senior official in the Citizens Coalition for Change, Sikhala faces up to 10 years behind bars if convicted.

He is due in court for a bail hearing on Monday, after several previous failed bids to secure his release.

But Mtetwa was sceptical of his chances, saying that independent judges had been sidelined, disciplined or dismissed under Mnangagwa.

“The point is not so much to have him prosecuted, but to harass him and to keep him in custody for as long as possible,” she said. AFP