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Opinion-Criminalisation of dissenting voices, abuse of the Judiciary as a political weapon

By Elias Mambo

On Friday, Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of an opposition political party, Transform Zimbabwe, was jailed for an effective three years for inciting violence in 2020.

The conviction comes at a time when another outspoken opposition firebrand, Job Sikhala, is almost clocking a year in prison following his arrest in June last year, again, on allegations of inciting violence.

What is now clear is a pattern which speaks to unending criminalisation of dissenting voices and blatant abuse of the Judiciary as a political weapon of choice.

This is happening at a time when Zimbabwe is trudging towards the crucial 2023 Presidential elections scheduled to take place between July and August and begs a lot of unanswered questions on the trajectory the country is taking in terms of shaping its democracy.

The criminalisation of dissent and the abuse of the judiciary as a political weapon have had a chilling effect on free speech and democracy in Zimbabwe. Many activists, journalists, and opposition politicians now self-censor for fear of being arrested or prosecuted. This has led to a situation where the ruling party has been able to consolidate its power and suppress any form of opposition.

But protests are guaranteed in the constitution

The Constitution of Zimbabwe, which is the supreme law of the land, adopted in 2013, guarantees the right to peaceful protests as an essential component of freedom of expression and assembly.

However, in practice, the government has used various tactics to suppress protests, including excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests, and restrictions on freedom of movement.

Under the Constitution, Zimbabwean citizens have the right to assemble and demonstrate peacefully. However, the police have often denied permission for demonstrations on the grounds of public safety, citing concerns over possible violence or disruption. This has led to a situation where protests are often dispersed by force, with protestors being beaten, arrested, and charged with public disorder offences.

In addition, the government has also used a range of legal and administrative measures to restrict freedom of movement and assembly. These include the archaic laws such Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which used to give the police broad powers to regulate public gatherings and demonstrations, and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which restricted freedom of expression and the media. Despite having been repealed, the successor laws have also been equally used to suppress dissenting voices.

Protests have become a common form of political expression in Zimbabwe, with citizens using them to demand political change, economic reform, and social justice.

In recent years, there have been several high-profile protests, including the #ThisFlag movement, which called for an end to corruption and economic mismanagement, and the #ShutdownZimbabwe campaign, which sought to highlight the government’s failure to address the country’s economic crisis. Despite such protests there has never been a conviction to the magnitude of the Ngarivhume case which will go down in history as the worst judgement ever handed down in the Judicial history of Zimbabwe.

Major protests have often been met with violent repression by the government, a good example being in August 2018, where six people were killed when the army was called in to disperse protestors in Harare, following the disputed election results.

When the Judiciary becomes a political weapon of choice

The Zimbabwean government has a long history of cracking down on dissent. In the early years of independence, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, the government used its security forces to violently suppress any form of opposition. This led to a cycle of violence and repression that has continued to this day.

The late Constitution Law expert and Kent University lecturer, Alex Magaisa, in his several articles, spoke of Lawfare, or the use of the legal system as a tool for political oppression, which is becoming a growing concern in Zimbabwe.

The government has been accused of using the legal system to harass and intimidate opposition figures, journalists, and civil society activists, often under the guise of fighting corruption or upholding national security.

One of the most significant ways the government has targeted dissenting voices in recent years has been through the criminal justice system. The government has used a variety of legal measures, including the use of outdated colonial-era laws, to arrest and prosecute activists, journalists, and opposition politicians. In recent years, the situation has deteriorated, with the government using increasingly draconian measures to silence opposition voices and suppress any form of dissent.

Common example of lawfare in Zimbabwe is the use of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act to criminalise free speech and dissent. The law has been used to prosecute journalists and activists who criticise the government, often on the grounds of “insulting the president” or “undermining the authority of the government.” This has led to a climate of fear and self-censorship, as many people are afraid to express their opinions for fear of being arrested or harassed by the authorities.

The government has also used the courts to target civil society organizations and human rights defenders. In 2019, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum was taken to court on charges of contempt of court after it criticised the judiciary for its handling of the case of activist Jestina Mukoko. The case was widely seen as an attempt to intimidate and silence civil society organizations that are critical of the government.

In addition, the government has been accused of using the judiciary to suppress opposition and consolidate its power. This has included the appointment of judges with close ties to the ruling party, the suspension of judges who rule against the government, and the use of the judiciary to legitimise controversial laws, such as the 2018 Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill.

The government has also used the judiciary as a political weapon, with judges coming under increasing pressure to tow the government line. In 2020, High Court judge Erica Ndewere was suspended after she granted bail to opposition politician Job Sikhala. This was widely seen as an attempt by the government to intimidate judges and prevent them from ruling against the government.

With elections around the corner, government has to make right choices if it wants to hold free and fair elections. The continued incarceration of opposition political actors foretells a chaotic and disputed plebiscite.

While it is clear that the law must be respected, it must also be known that the Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees the right to peaceful protests. However, in practice, the government has used a range of tactics to suppress this right. Protests remain an important tool for citizens to express their political views, but they are often met with excessive force and repression by the authorities. The government must respect the constitutional right to peaceful protest and ensure that citizens are free to exercise this right without fear of violence or arrest.

Elias Mambo is an investigative journalist, Human Rights Defender and Law student. He writes in his own personal capacity.