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Stop weaponising the justice system

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THE incarceration of opposition legislators Job Sikhala and Godfrey Sithole has come to symbolise not only the authoritarian excesses of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government but also the glaring failings of what ought to be an impartial justice delivery system.

Locking up accused persons for than 60 days in pre-trial detention is a serious violation of human rights.

The lengthy pre-trial detention is clearly undermining any prospects of a fair trial. It is an affront to the rule of law in a country that claims to be a constitutional democracy.

Bail is a constitutional entitlement, so why are the opposition politicians being repeatedly deprived of their liberty in a manner that raises serious questions on the very integrity of state institutions?

It has not escaped the public’s notice that rapists and robbers are routinely granted bail, yet these two elected members of Parliament are kept locked up under scandalous circumstances. Judges and magistrates in this country have often granted bail to carjackers who have proceeded to commit more heinous crimes. Are we to believe that Sikhala and Sithole are more “dangerous” than marauding gun-wielding criminals?

For any level-headed person, it is not difficult to see what is at play here: this is political persecution writ large.

Sikhala has been arrested more than 70 times – but has never been convicted. It speaks volumes about the nature of the system he is up against.

On what objective basis can he be endlessly denied bail? He is an MP, a lawyer, a businessman, a family man and a senior politician. He has a lot to lose, so his chances of absconding court are next to nil.

A fair, uncaptured and uncompromised justice system would know that there are plenty of non-custodial measures at its disposal, including bail, submission of passport and a requirement to report regularly to the police. These measures are more than adequate to serve the interests of justice.

In the final analysis, what the government and the courts are doing to these unjustly detained legislators is to criminalise dissent and outlaw the political opposition. That is a very dangerous slippery slope.

Zimbabwe cannot be a one-party state. Zanu tried that in the 1980s and ended up committing genocide against the Ndebele community.

International human rights standards require the Zimbabwean authorities to uphold the law and ensure that both law enforcement and the justice delivery system are not weaponised in a partisan manner.

Five years after Mnangagwa stormed his way to power on the back of military tanks, Zimbabweans continue witnessing the flagrant abuse of power.

Human rights defender and political activist Makomborero Haruzivishe was locked up for almost a year in pre-trial detention. Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was denied bail and locked up for lengthy periods.

This unconstitutional deprivation of liberty tarnishes the already soiled image of the country. Repression has devastating consequences: investors keep away; international financiers shut their purses; transparency and accountability are whittled down; corruption and bad governance spiral out of control; country risk shoots through the roof; the economy suffers and citizens continue wallowing in poverty.

Without a shadow of doubt, pre-trial detention has become a weapon of choice for an authoritarian kleptocracy desperate to intimidate and silence critics.

It is a violation of the constitutional presumption of innocence. Mnangagwa must free all political prisoners.

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