THE Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), an organisation that protects and defends human rights through sustainable litigation, has raised concern over the continued prosecution of perceived opponents of President Emmerson Mnangagwa ahead of the general elections.
The trend is likely to continue due to shrinking civic space, the ZLHR warns.
This comes after the government resuscitated the prosecution of human rights activist Rashid Mahiya on charges of attempting to overthrow the Mnangagwa government, four years after he was initially accused.
Mahiya, who is executive director of Heal Zimbabwe, a civil society organisation, was arrested in 2019 alongside several pro-democracy campaigners, trade unionists, civil society and opposition legislators after countrywide demonstrations against fuel price hikes.
The state has resuscitated his case, accusing him of unlawfully convening a meeting at Wild Geese Conference Centre in Harare’s Pomona suburb between 3 December and 6 December 2018.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) says the meeting was aimed at toppling Mnangagwa.
“NPA says deliberations from the meeting were aimed at overthrowing or attempting to overthrow President Mnangagwa’s government by unconstitutional means or usurping the functions of government or coerce Zimbabwean workers to engage in acts of boycott, civil obedience or passive resistance to law,” said the ZLHR.
Mahiya was summoned by the NPA to appear before the Harare magistrates’ court to answer charges of subverting a constitutional government as defined in section 22 (2) (a) (i) of the Criminal Code.
Before his summoning, Mahiya had been removed from remand on 5 November 2021 after his lawyer, Tonderai Bhatasara of the ZLHR, successfully challenged his lengthy prosecution without trial from February 2019.
This week, ZLHR executive director Roselyn Hanzi told The NewsHawks that the persecution of activists and perceived opponents of those in power is likely to increase, with the government constricting civic space.
“Basing on our experiences from previous years, we have seen the targeting of different human rights defenders or those that are holding different views from the ruling party, especially as we head towards the elections, as a way to disrupt their work, to silence them,” she said.
“So, it is a trend that we have seen in the previous elections, and unfortunately, until now, we have seen that they are still using the same tactics of targeting human rights defenders who speak out against bad governance, accountability and human rights violations.
“And of major concern is that this case (Rashid Mahiya) has been resuscitated at a time when there is shrinking of the civic space through introduction of laws such as the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Bill, which is now awaiting presidential assent.
“Then there is also the intention to infuse patriotism in the Criminal Law Codification Act, which is blatantly unconstitutional and will stifle many rights that includes assembly, association, among others.”
President Mnangagwa has a worse track than former president Robert Mugabe in stifling civic space ahead of polls, according to a local think-tank, the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.
The ZDI’s report titled: “Civic Space Contestation Ahead of 2023” shows a drastic fall in civil liberties during the political tenure of Mnangagwa, compared to that of the late Mugabe.
The organisation made an analysis of the civic space between 2014-2021 by contrasting Mugabe’s final four years in power ahead of the 2018 elections, and Mnangagwa’s initial four years into power ahead of the 2023 elections.
The findings showed a 2% increase in civic space and state freedom during Mnangagwa’s first year in power, compared to Mugabe in 2014, while 2019 saw a 13% decline in state freedom from 44%.
Some of Mnangagwa’s critics have been languishing in prison. For instance, senior opposition leader Job Sikhala has been detained since mid-June 2022.
On 14 June 2022, Sikhala and Godfrey Sithole (CCC legislator for Chitungwiza North) were arrested and charged with inciting violence following the murder of party activist, Moreblessing Ali, whose family Sikhala was representing as a lawyer.
Ali was abducted in Nyatsime on 24 May, allegedly by a Zanu PF activist. Her mutilated body was later found in a disused well, raising public outcry.
In November last year, 15 other people arrested together with Sikhala were released ahead of a visit to Harare by a Commonwealth delegation led by assistant secretary-general Professor Luis Franceschi from 12 to 18 November, which was meant to assess if the country is ready to rejoin the club.
Sithole was granted ZW$300 000 bail by Harare magistrate Marevanazvo Gofa after spending 150 days in prison.
Other activists, Pride Mukono and Obert Masaraure, have been facing lengthy prosecution, accused of attempting to subvert a constitutionally elected government, a charge they deny.