Today is my birthday, and I should be celebrating. I am thankful for the great favour of life, for the freedom we take for granted and for the many beautiful messages I have received.
Yet, as I write, my heart carries an ache. I worry for Zimbabwe’s political detainees, Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume. I know that the two men represent all of us who are critical of the regime. If it weren’t them, it could be the next critic or me. Their suffering is a representation of our pain; the face of a repressive state.
Of the two men, I know Hopewell better, having had closer interactions for several years. He is a well-known journalist and filmmaker who has won numerous awards for his work. Jacob is the leader of a political party called Transform Zimbabwe, which was part of the MDC Alliance in the last elections.
Both men were arrested more than a fortnight ago when police carried out early morning raids at their homes. They faced charges of inciting public violence through tweets on the social media platform, Twitter. Ngarivhume had called for anti-corruption demonstrations on 31 July 2020, and Chin’ono had reported on it and supported the call. Many Zimbabweans had heeded the call and promoted the protests.
However, many decent observers do not believe this is the real reason why the State charged and detained them. There is nothing in the tweets which could reasonably be regarded as incitement to public violence.
“He will go after you”
In the case of Chin’ono, many see the incarceration as vindictive punishment for exposing members of President Mnangagwa and his family in an explosive corruption scandal over the supply of medical goods. The corruption involved gross inflation of medical supplies for the COVID19 pandemic by companies linked to members of President Mnangagwa’s circle. The scandal exposed and embarrassed Mnangagwa.
Britain’s ITV news once asked former President and now the late, Robert Mugabe after his removal about the character of his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa. He doesn’t forget, said Mugabe. “If a person steps on his shoes or toes, he will go after you”. Observers see this episode as Mnangagwa “going after” the journalist who stepped on his toes.
Hopewell Chin’ono was not the only journalist pursuing the story. But he was the most relentless and persistent in linking the corruption to Mnangagwa’s family. He pushed so hard that ZANU PF issued a threatening press statement against Chin’ono. ZANU PF’s acting spokesperson, Patrick Chinamasa specifically called him an “unscrupulous character”. The threats issued then have come to pass, with Chin’ono now imprisoned. It’s a clear abuse of state power to settle personal scores.
The other investigative journalist who first broke the story back in April, Mduduzi Mathuthu, editor of Zimlive.com has been in hiding for more than a week. The police arrested his sister when they came to his home and didn’t find him. It was a cruel strategy to draw him out of hiding. State agents also abducted Mathuthu’s nephews. One of them, Tawanda Muchehiwa, was tortured and left traumatised. Doctors say his kidneys were damaged.
After the exposure of the scandal, Mnangagwa dragged his feet before sacking the Minister of Health, Dr Obadiah Moyo. Moyo had been arrested and charged with corruption. But unlike the treatment given to the journalists who exposed him, Moyo did not spend a single night in police custody. The justice system gave him special treatment. He even came to court with a stash of local cash in a box, ready to pay bail.
This is the paradox of Zimbabwe’s justice system: the corrupt are treated with leniency, while those who expose corruption are harassed. When the BSR revealed the beneficiaries of the opaque and corrupt RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scandal, Patrick Chinamasa and ZANU PF also issued an aggressive and vitriolic press statement against me. That is the nature of the regime, but as is evident with how it’s treating Chin’ono and Mathuthu, their threats are not idle.
To Zimbabwe’s Alcatraz
Chin’ono’s and Ngarivhume’s respective bids for freedom have hit a brick wall twice, first at the magistrates’ court and later, on appeal at the High Court. This is even though the day on which the demonstrations were scheduled has long passed. The magistrate had refused bail on the basis that they posed a risk of continuing with the alleged incitement culminating in the demonstrations on 31 July. Even if this is taken as correct, that day has since passed. This means the condition of their incarceration has expired. There is no more need to keep them in jail.
Instead, the two men were transferred from the Harare Remand Prison to the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, the Alcatraz of Zimbabwe’s correctional facilities. The home of Zimbabwe’s most dangerous criminals, Chikurubi is a heavily fortified and imposing prison which lies to the east of Harare. Conditions there, as in most prisons in Zimbabwe, are deplorable.
Chikurubi has housed many illustrious names in Zimbabwe’s political history. The most well-known are Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku, both war heroes who were persecuted by the Mugabe regime soon after independence. They were charged with treason and spent years detained without trial. Masuku died in such captivity. Although the government later took him to a public hospital, the truth is that the war hero died at the hands of the State.
It is to this fortress of repression that the Mnangagwa regime took Chin’ono and Ngarivhume soon after the High Court denied them bail. They were shackled in leg-irons and driven at night to their new home. The transfer represents an escalation of the crisis when pre-trial suspects co-exist side by side with convicted criminals. It makes a mockery of the principle that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty.
Denial of rights and freedoms
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights reports that when they arrived at Chikurubi, they were refused jumpers to keep them warm. Zimbabwe is generally a warm country, but winter nights come with a bitter chill that goes right into the bone. The prison authorities said they had run out of stock. When the lawyers offered to get the political detainees some warm clothing from outside, the authorities were reluctant, insisting that they only accept the trademark red and white striped jumpers.
The lawyers’ organisation also reports the violation of the most basic rules of the criminal justice system, that a lawyer and his client must be allowed privacy to consult. The Zimbabwean Constitution provides for this right. Section 50(4) states, “Any person who is detained, including a prisoner, has the right – (b) at their own expense, to consult in private with a legal practitioner of their choice …”. This right to private consultation is being denied, with prison officers insisting on listening in to the conversations. The prison authorities are relying on a directive by the Commissioner General of Prisons, but this is unconstitutional.
There have also been allegations that they refused Ngarivhume’s wife’s permission to visit him in prison. If so, this is contrary to section 50(c.)(i) of the Constitution. It provides that detainees’ have a right to communicate with or be visited by their spouse or partner.
There are many Zimbabweans who have been subjected to harsh and cruel treatment by the regime. But few have been dealt a heavy hand as have these two men. The others were the three MDC young women, Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri who were arrested and detained at Chikurubi for some weeks. This was after they were abducted and tortured by suspected State agents. Many others who have been charged with attempting to overthrow the government have been granted bail. Cases against them have died a natural death because the charges were spurious.
The fears for Chin’ono and Ngarivhume come in two parts.
The risk of COIVD-19 infection
The first is the obvious risk of infection with the dangerous COVID-19 virus. There have been cases of COVID-19 infection in Zimbabwe’s prisons. There was a report that a member of the kitchen staff at Harare Remand Prison had tested positive a week ago. This led to restrictions by prison authorities concerning visitors and bringing food from outside. Conditions in Zimbabwe’s prisons are a haven for the virus. There is no running water. Prison cells are overcrowded. Food is sparse. Diseases are rampant.
Lawyers say prison authorities took away Chin’ono’s goggles which he wore as a COVID-19 prevention measure. The prison authorities said they were not sure if the goggles were for protection or recording the State of the prison. These conditions create a perfect storm for the pandemic.
This means the longer Chin’ono and Ngarivhume remain in custody, the more exposed they are to the risk of COVID-19 infection. This is a cruel sword hanging above the two men; living with the fear of infection because their freedom is curtailed. The charges they are facing, and the evidence upon which they are based, do not justify their detention, let alone the risk of exposure to COVID-19 infection. One is moved to believe that the State is deliberately weaponising the threat of COVID-19 infection against political opponents. The real risk of COVID-19 infection in such conditions is tantamount to the State using the threat of the death penalty against opponents.
There was no evidence that the two men were infected before they were detained two weeks ago. If either or both of them are infected, the State would have to take full responsibility. Not only are they exposed to COVID-19, but the authorities are preventing them from using protective clothing to minimise the risk of infection.
The threat of pseudo-suspects
The other risk is more direct. It is not uncommon in a repressive regime for prison authorities to use violence against political detainees. Observers who are familiar with these strategies have been asking of the risk of violence in Zimbabwe’s prisons. For example, a colleague from Ethiopia who is concerned for Chin’ono’s safety asked about the threat of state-sponsored violence while in jail.
One of the more common strategies is that the State infiltrates prison cells by planting its agents who pose as suspects. These are the so-called “pseudo-suspects”. They are thrown into the prison cells as new suspects. Their job is to spy on the targeted individuals, in this case, inmates of political interest like Chin’ono and Ngarivhume. They might even pose as fellow cadres or sympathisers, seeking to develop a bond with them. This bond of friendship is then used as a veil to carry out a more sinister mission.
If they do not pose as friends, these plants act as agent provocateurs. They bait targeted individuals into a fight, thereby creating a situation of chaos and violence in prison. During this process, the targeted individuals are violently attacked.
One hopes, therefore, that both Chin’ono and Ngarivhume will be careful enough to understand these strategies. The risks are mitigated by the genuinely good men and women, both among prison staff and inmates who appreciate the cause that both men stand for. They appreciate that they are victims, rather than criminals. Many ordinary people do extraordinary things. It is these people who can be the third eye for the two men who are currently at the mercy of the regime. But still, for the two men, the great difficulty lies in separating the genuine from the fake among all those friendly voices.
Even as I mark my birthday, my thoughts are with these political prisoners. I have heard many people talk about heroes. This makes us comfortable. But the truth is, heroes are ordinary people who breathe and feel pain like all of us. They do not become heroes because they are not scared, no. They are as vulnerable as the next person. They are also in need of protection as the rest of us.
The difference is, they have the courage to say or do the things that many would otherwise remain silent about. Doing so requires a healthy dose of recklessness. They choose to be reckless on behalf of society. It is a just and noble recklessness. The cost is heavy upon them. It would be cowardly not to stand by them when they have lost their voices while defending ours. This is why the call must be made loud and clear: #ZimbabweanLivesMatter.