Politics and Society
120 days and counting: Political persecution in Zimbabwe – the case of Job Sikhala, Godfrey Sithole and others
Job Sikhala and Godfrey Sithole, opposition MPs, together with 14 other Nyatsime residents have now spent more than 120 days in pre-trial detention. Despite bail being a constitutional right in Zimbabwe, the courts have denied the accused bail five times, raising concerns that they have become victims of political persecution.
Tuesday, October 11 marked exactly 120 days since Zimbabwe opposition political party Citizens Coalition for Change’s (CCC) Deputy Chairperson Job Sikhala and Godfrey Sithole, both members of parliament in Chitungwiza, a small town on the outskirts of the capital Harare have been arrested and held in detention. The pair have been in custody on allegations of inciting violence while protesting the murder of opposition activist Moreblessing Ali by suspected ruling party ZANU PF activist, Pius Jamba in Nyatsime.
The two were arrested on June 14, 2022 together with 14 other members of the CCC party from Nyatsime. They are all still in remand, with five of them, including the opposition’s top members Sikhala and Sithole being detained at Zimbabwe’s infamous maximum security prison, Chikurubi, whilst the others are at Harare Remand Prison.
Legal attempts to challenge the continued incarceration of the group have been fruitless. Bail applications have continuously and successively been denied on several occasions by both the Magistrate’s and High Court. This is despite the fact that Zimbabwe’s supreme law guarantees bail for all arrested persons pending trial.
CCC spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere has called the treatment of Sikhala by the courts as political “persecution” adding that bail is a constitutional right.
“The High Court has dismissed Hon Job Sikhala bail appeal. Bail is a constitutional entitlement. Every person is innocent until proven guilty. His persecution is a direct attack on political freedom and the right to liberty. The very essence of democracy is on trial,” she said after the group was denied bail for the fifth time.
The multiple bail denials are unprecedented. There has not been any prosecution in recent times where one has been denied bail for such numerous times, for obstruction of justice, which Sikhala is facing, and inciting public violence, which Sithole is charged for.
Events leading to the arrest
On 24 May 2022, Moreblessing Ali, a female member of the newly formed CCC political party, led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa was abducted around 21:00 hours. She was later found brutally murdered. Her mutilated body was in a state of decomposition. Ali was a strong opposition activist whose murder is strongly linked to the ruling party Zanu PF.
After her abduction and forced disappearance Ali’s family engaged Sikhala to be their lawyer. Their instructions to Sikhala were to demand from the authorities the truth about her whereabouts and to demand justice for her. The government in an attempt to conceal the truth about the circumstances around the abduction, engaged in a public campaign against the law maker, through statements issued by senior government officials and its propaganda state media mouthpieces inciting and calling for his arrest.
The campaign succeeded and on 14 June 2022, the government dispatched a swarm of its paratroopers, secret security agents and the police totalling over 100 members. They raided Sikhala’s house in St Mary’s, Chitungwiza and arrested him. Sikhala and Sithole were arrested for allegedly inciting violence that rocked the memorial service and funeral of Ali. The skirmishes involved CCC and Zanu PF activists who reportedly harassed moaners at the funeral. CCC activists responded to the attacks by torching the house of a ruling party official.
Sikhala was charged with obstructing the course of justice over a speech he made at Moreblessing’s funeral, allegedly suggesting that Zanu PF members were behind the murder.
Job Sikhala vs The State
Sikhala (50) is a Zimbabwean lawyer, MP for Zengeza West constituency and the Deputy Chairperson of CCC.
Jail is hardly a novel experience for the firebrand politician. In a political career spanning more than two decades, he has been arrested 67 times but never been convicted. He started his political activism and public leadership during his early days as a student leader at the University of Zimbabwe in the late 1990s. He was elected as the MP for St Mary’s constituency in the year 2000 as a young graduate.
His troubles started soon after election into public office in the year 2000. Under the late former President Robert Mugabe’s 37 year rule, he was arrested more than 60 times. Despite the 60 arrests, he was acquitted of all the politically motivated charges.
On all his troubles under Mugabe’s reign, the State went overboard and tortured him in January 2003 together with his (then) lawyer Gabriel Shumba, his friend Charles Mutame and Taurai Magaya. The torture ignited international outrage. It became an important issue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) summit held in Brisbane, Australia in 2003 and subsequently was among the issues which triggered the swift exit of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth.
Following Mugabe’s exit from power in November 2017 in a coup, the new administration has intensified its persecution of the lawmaker. Sikhala was arrested on 26 June 2019, accused of treason and plotting to overthrow the government of President Emerson Mnangagwa using unconstitutional means. He was tried in the High Court in Masvingo and was acquitted.
The government’s propensity to persecute the lawmaker only intensified as they arrested him again in August 2020, with the matter still pending in the Courts, accusing him of incitement to cause public violence over the public’s successful stay home of 31 July 2020.
Sikhala was arrested once more together with journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and CCC spokesperson Mahere, accused of publishing falsehoods via social media.
Sikhala has been arrested twice in 2022, this time being incarcerated in solitary confinement at Chikurubi.
State interference with the judiciary
There has been apparent differential treatment of offenders and likely offenders between Zanu-PF and CCC. There are concerns that ZANU PF is abusing the state machinery to spite opponents.
The continued incarceration and bail denial of political activists has raised eyebrows, juxtaposed to the little-resisted granting of bail to high profile and politically connected Zanu-PF members. ZANU PF MP for Gokwe Nembudziya, Justice Mayor Wadyajena who was accused of US$ 5 million fraud only spent 2 days in remand before being granted bail. The harsh treatment of opposition members and government critics has raised questions about the equal treatment of citizens before the courts. There appears to be targeted different treatment of those arrested and detained for political matters.
Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi has however vehemently denied claims of either government or Zanu-PF meddling in court processes involving prominent opposition politicians. Reached for comment, Ziyambi denied any knowledge of Sikhala criminal trial, let alone meddling in the progress of his court processes on behalf of either government or ZANU-PF.
“I don’t even know his (Sikhala) case, or what is happening there and I am completely sincere. I don’t know what is happening in court. I don’t even know honestly. I have never followed anything. I don’t know. I have never had interest in following it.
“We never discuss these things. During my entire time in government, we have never discussed these things before courts.”
Meanwhile, exiled former government minister Saviour Kasukuwere also took a dig at President Mnangagwa’s regime for using the judiciary and police to persecute political opponents. He condemned imprisonment of citizens without charge, saying Zimbabweans should unite to build a better country and ensure that peace and prosperity prevails.
“No Zimbabwean should be imprisoned without charge for lawfully and rightfully taking part in our politics, no Zimbabwean should be persecuted because of political differences and no Zimbabwean should be exiled because of personal or political differences,” said Kasukuwere.
However, the leader of another opposition political party National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), Professor Lovemore Madhuku conversely said, “Job Sikhala, and Godfrey Sithole are victims of their party’s refusal to participate in the national dialogue.”
Madhuku said the party (CCC)’s refusal to join Political Actors’ Dialogue (POLAD), an initiation by President Mnangagwa is one of the factors why the detained politicians are not getting bail. Madhuku told Citizens Voice Network:
The remedy there has always been clear. The positions that you have seen, the Nyatsime 16 as you put that out, and the issues you have raised about Job Sikhala, I think this could have been resolved by a dialogue process. They are now victims of their own political party that refuses to dialogue, that refused to be part of POLAD. I think that if there were issues to do with the perception which is strongly coming out that this is political perception, what would stop the party to which they belong from having an audience with the president? The role of the president there is not to interfere with the courts but it would be to engage with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA)… The NPA is the one who would consent to bail, make arrangements for an early trial and so on. Every political leader ought to know that these issues are political… Job Sikhala, Sithole and Nyatsime people are now victims of the failure by their party to know that politics is about engagement. Politics is not always about fighting and if they had good leadership in that party they would be out by now. If you make it a political issue, you engage other political players.
Following the statement, CCC slammed Professor Madhuku for his attempt to romanticise the people’s struggle saying no one needs political negotiations to get bail.
Harassment and human rights abuses
During the course of their incarceration, the lawyers representing Sikhala and Sithole protested to the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services over ill treatment of the two. The lawyers from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) alleged that Sikhala and Sithole were being treated in a cruel and denigrating manner.
The ZLHR’s letter wrote:
We have protested to ZPCS against the inhuman, cruel & degrading treatment of Hon. Job Sikhala and Hon. Godfrey Sithole who are constantly shackled in leg irons in prison & are sustaining bruises.
Some visitors are also being turned away when they bring food for Hon. Sikhala.
Our lawyers Rose Hanzi & Idirashe registered concern that Hon. Sikhala & Hon. Sithole are being detained in the “D” class section which is the detention section for dangerous & convicted criminals & yet the 2 legislators have not been convicted of any crime.
We want ZPCS to take corrective measures & detain the 2 in conditions that do not amount to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Several human rights defenders have been shackled and detained at the D Class section. Detaining human rights defenders or political leaders at this section is tantamount to persecution. This also followed concerns that were raised over Sikhala’s health after he suffered suspected food poisoning by state agents.
According to investigative journalist Chin’ono, prison officers phoned his lawyer to inform her of Sikhala’s condition.
“Job Sikhala’s lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa has received a call from Chikurubi prison asking her to urgently get a doctor for the political prisoner and MP.
“His wife confirmed to me that she also got a call letting her know that Sikhala is vomiting, she is now on her way to the prison,” wrote Chin’ono.
In July, Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southern Africa, said: “The continued detention of Job Sikhala and Godfrey Sithole and the denial of their lawyers access to meet with them is an absolute travesty of justice. There is an emerging trend where critics of government and members of the opposition are consistently harassed and denied bail by the courts, brought to court in iron legs and at times denied access to their lawyers. Yet high profile political elites facing criminal offences are in most cases treated entirely differently with bail being granted regardless of the seriousness of the offence.
“The charges levelled against Sikhala and Sithole and the denial of bail at the magistrates court show all the hallmarks of an effort to persecute and silence political opposition by the Zimbabwean authorities.
“The authorities should refocus their efforts on ensuring that Moreblessing Ali’s killers face justice, and ensuring access to justice and effective remedies for victims and their families.”
Sikhala’s case is indeed one of political persecution, lawfare and a crackdown on the opposition by the government in a bid to weaken political opponents as the general elections scheduled for mid-next year get closer.
With repeated attempts to get bail having failed numerous times, despite Sikhala and the entire group having hired top lawyers in the country that include Mtetwa, a renowned Human Rights lawyer, and an international firm, Amsterdam and Partners that operates in the UK and USA, the hope is that the rule of law that exists in a democracy will prevail and put an end to the persecution of political prisoners.
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