WITH the sentencing of an opposition party leader – to four years in prison- and the possible jailing of another, the crackdown on government critics in Zimbabwe is escalating. It raises the spectre of repression as the Southern African country prepares to hold general elections later this year.
In an unprecedented development, a court in Harare has sentenced Jacob Ngarivhume to 48 months in prison, 12 months suspended after he was found guilty of “inciting public violence” by using his Twitter handle to convene the July 31, 2020 nationwide anti-corruption protests. Typically, security forces accused of loyalty to the ruling party quashed the demonstrations.
Harare magistrate, Feresi Chakanyuka, has sentenced Ngarivhume to jail without the option of a fine, triggering outcry in Zimbabwe and the region.
Transform Zimbabwe, the party led by the convict, has made available a letter attributed to him, written from the Harare Central Prison. “My imprisonment by the regime should never discourage many other
gallant fighters out there. Rather it should embolden you,” he is quoted. “This is just a fight. It must continue. A call for a corruption free society must continue. We (make) a call for a Zimbabwe that respects the rights of citizens,” Ngarivhume said.
The letter provides an insight into the conditions at Zimbabwe’s prisons, which are said to be inhumane. “The conditions here are as they have been in a long time now. Cells are overcrowded,” Ngarivhume is quoted. “Facilities are broken down. Human beings are treated as animals. This emboldens our fight. We fight for a nation that respects citizens.” His first documented arrest was in 2014, for “holding illegal meetings.”
Human rights groups believe the conviction and sentencing show a growing crackdown on opposition leaders, human rights defenders, activists, journalists and other critical dissenting voices through abuse of the legal system.
“Authorities must stop weaponizing the law to target opposition figures or anyone who speaks out against corruption,” said Vongai Chikwanda, Amnesty International’s interim Deputy Director for Southern Africa. Critics of the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa pointed out Chakanyuka had a history of judgements unfavourable to the opposition and a reputation for harassing government opponents.
Zimbabwe’s judiciary is accused of partisanship and loyalty to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), in power since independence in 1980. Chakanyuka has presided over the case of veteran opposition politician, Jacob Sikhala, who has spent almost a year in remand prison on charges of inciting violence after the murder of Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) supporter, Moreblessing Ali, allegedly by ruling party supporters.
He has been denied bail on many occasions. The jailing of Ngarivhume has raised fears that a similar fate awaits Sikhala. Chakanyuka also presided over the trial of Mary Mubaiwa, former wife of Vice President Constantino Chiwengwa. Mubaiwa faced numerous charges including an alleged attempt to kill Chiwenga, the former military general that is seen as the mastermind of the coup that ousted then president, Robert Mugabe (now late), in 2017.
“The conviction and sentence (of Ngarivhume) make a mockery of the judiciary and leave it in utter disrepute,” Jonathan Moyo, exiled former cabinet minister, Prof. Jonathan Moyo, criticised. He was one of politicians targeted when the military took over amid denials this was a coup but intervention targeting “criminals around Mugabe.”
Zimbabwe is to hold elections this year, at a date to be announced. Election years coincide with clampdowns on the opposition. In the run-up to the 2002 presidential elections, leader of the then main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai (now deceased) was charged with treason for an alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe. He was acquitted. Ngarivhume’s sentencing has sent shockwaves across Zimbabwe’s borders. Julius Malema, leader of South Africa’s opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, expressed “shock.”
“Sending an activist to four years imprisonment for simply holding different political views is pathetic,” Malema stated. He is a staunch critic of Mnangagwa, whose party and South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) are allies.
Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SouthernDefenders) condemned the sentence imposed on Ngarivhume and the continued detention of Sikhala.
“Jailing someone for calling for peaceful anti-corruption protests, especially in the current firestorm of the ‘Gold Mafia’ documentary which exposed industrial-scale looting of mineral resources in Zimbabwe, is reflective of a government that has zero intention of addressing corruption but is instead determined to silence those striving to hold it accountable,” said Prof. Adriano Nuvunga, Chairperson of SouthernDefenders. The ZANU-PF Patriots, which is aligned to the Zimbabwe ruling party,
stated, “Sentencing of Jacob Ngarivhume shows there is the rule of law