A RECORD 18 civil society organisations from different parts of the world have petitioned President Emmerson Mnangagwa and key figures in his government over the growing trend of judicial persecution through lawfare — citing the case of Zengeza West legislator Job Sikhala who has been in detention for almost a year.
The petition was obtained by The NewsHawks this week and is dated 1 June. Also petitioned via the same document was Chief Justice Luke Malaba, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs minister Ziyambi Ziyambi and Acting Prosecutor-General Nelson Mutsonziwa.
The foreign civil society groups are NamRights Inc (Namibia), Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (South Africa), Restoration of Human Rights, (United Kingdom), Zimbabwe Diaspora for Democracy, Inc (United States of America), Political Prisoners in Africa (Sadc), and Ditshwanelo, also known as The Botswana Centre for Human Rights (Botswana).
There is also Mozambique Human Rights Defenders Network (Mozambique), Centre for Democracy and Development (Mozambique), Civic Space Network (Sadc), and the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (Sadc).
The local groups behind the petition are the Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa (ACTSA), Chitungwiza Residents Trust, Zimbabwe Organisation For Youth In Politics (Z.O.Y.P), Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice Trust (ICPJT), Kwekwe Residents Association, and Harare Residents Trust (HRT).
There is also the Hands of Hope Trust (Zimbabwe) and Voice of Justice. Part of the petition reads:
“We, the undersigned Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) herein register our deep concerns against a growing trend of judicial persecution and the abuse of the legal system (lawfare) by Zimbabwean authorities to close the civic space and target human rights defenders (HRDs) and pro-democracy activists…
“These concerns are informed by the case of Honourable. Job Sikhala, the Zengeza West Legislator who is a Human Rights Lawyer and Senior Member of Zimbabwe’s Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) and has been remanded at Chikurubi Maximum Prison from 14 June 2023 to date charged with two false allegations of obstruction of the course of justice and public violence.
“Other cases of judicial persecution through prosecution include the cases of Jacob Ngarivhume, Hopewell Chin’ono, and Tsitsi Dangarembga.
“We are concerned that Hon Sikhala was arrested as punishment for representing the family of the late Moreblessing Ali who was seeking justice after the brutal murder of Moreblessing by a suspect/s believed to be linked to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU PF).
“Further, note that as a registered legal practitioner Sikhala had every right to represent his client (family of the slain Moreblessing Ali) and also that the family of the murdered Moreblessing Ali had the right to choose a lawyer of their choice.”
The petition further reads: “The following forms part of our concerns: (1)- The dismissal by both the Magistrate Court and High Court of more than 10 bail applications in circumstances where the law and the facts require that bail be granted, suggests that the procedural safeguards meant to secure the right to a fair trial through the judicial process have failed and continue to fail in Hon. Sikhala’s case.
“We refer to Section 117 (1) of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act [Chapter 9:07] which states that ‘[A] person who is in custody in respect of an offence shall be entitled to be released on bail at any time after he or she has appeared in court on a charge and before sentence is imposed unless the court finds that it is in the interests of justice that he or she should be detained in custody’. This legal right is not being given effect in Hon. Sikhala’s case.
“The approach to bail as it is worded in the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Amendment Act [Chapter 9:07] is not being applied by the courts and we strongly opine that there is no legal basis to justify why Hon. Sikhala has been denied bail on numerous occasions and continues to be held in prison for more than 10 months.”
On their recommendations to Mnangagwa, the 18 civil society organisations wrote: “The Zimbabwean judiciary must protect itself from the image of a compromised judiciary that lacks independence and impartiality in matters involving HRDs [human rights defenders], pro-democracy activists and legitimate political opponents by rigorously enforcing and protecting the Bill of Rights in cases before it and building jurisprudence that strengthens the implementation of the 2013 Zimbabwe Constitution and accords with the Principles And Guidelines on The Right to a Fair Trial And Legal Assistance in Africa.
“The management of the judiciary, including the Chief Justice should implement a programme of continuous judicial education to build a solid understanding on the part of judicial officers as to their role and duties which must be discharged with the highest levels of integrity, independence and impartiality.
“A Judicial Committee should be set up to inquire into the circumstances that led to judicial officers in Hon. Sikhala’s case being unable to properly consider the question of bail and its findings must be made public to prevent the manipulation of the judiciary and its processes in similar cases in the future.”
In an interview with The NewsHawks, Chantelle De Soussa, the Southern African Anti-Corruption Network (SACCON) coordinator based in South Africa who coordinated the petition said it was imperative that Zimbabwean authorities be flagged for lawfare against critics and targeting of Sikhala.
“Civil society from across the SADC stands in solidarity with human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. What happens in Zimbabwe can just as well happen in any other SADC country and we need to stand together. The unlawful detention of Hon. Job Sikhala has gone on for far too long and is of great concern.
“He was acting in the capacity of a legal representative and the international principle that legal representatives should not be persecuted for their work must be respected. Legal representatives are officers of the court and as they respect the court so the courts should respect their profession,” she said.
Allan Chaumba, the ACT-SA acting board chairperson, told The NewsHawks that his organisation had agreed to be part of signatories to the petition in order to amplify calls for Sikhala’s release.
“ACT-SA is one of the signatories to the petition because of a number of reasons: Firstly, Job Sikhala is innocent. He is simply being punished because he was representing the family of the slain Morebelssing Ali to seek justice after there were attempts to conceal the murder as well as the suspects in the murder case. He was simply doing his work as a legal practitioner.
“The same courts did not do the same in the cases of the Gokwe Nembudziya legislator, Justice Wadyajena; former Health Minister, Obadiah Moyo; former Local Government Minister, Ignatius Chombo; and Henrietta Rushwaya. These were granted bail without fighting for it. Why? Maybe they belong to favoured political parties.Hon. Sikhala is innocent and must be released from Chikurubi Maximum Prison and all charges against him dropped,” he said.
Chaumba reiterated that it is preposterous that Sikhala lodged more than 15 bail applications that were all dismissed by the courts of law and added that it makes people forced to think that the Zimbabwean Judiciary (courts) is being used as a weapon to persecute human rights defenders, pro-democracy activists and other dissenting voices.