The Harare High Court on Monday heard long-delayed bail applications by journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume, who were arrested on July 20 and accused of inciting public violence.
Justice Tawanda Chitapi heard the applications separately and reserved judgement to August 6.
Prosecutors say both men incited public violence through social media posts ahead of anti-government protests which had been called for July 31, but their lawyers say the charges are political.
The protests were ruthlessly crushed by the security forces who closed all access to towns and forced residents to stay in their homes. Dozens of opposition activists were arrested and some were abducted and tortured.
Ngarivhume, through his lawyer Moses Nkomo, disowned the Twitter handle which put out the three posts used in court as evidence of incitement.
The two men have been languishing in remand prison since being denied bail by magistrates Ngoni Nduna and Bianca Makwande on grounds that they were a danger to society.
Attempts to secure bail have repeatedly been frustrated by court officials.
Chin’ono’s lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa told Justice Chitapi on Monday that the journalist never called for the violent removal of government. Mtetwa said no evidence had been placed before the court to prove the allegations, and the denial of bail by Nduna was therefore a misdirection.
“The investigating officer accepted there was no mention of violence or anything that points to incitement. He accepted that a government can be lawfully removed from power without going to elections,” she argued.
“We all know July 31 has come and gone. There was no violence or breach of peace, so there was no reason for denying the appellant bail.”
Prosecutor Whisper Mabhaudhi argued the journalist was not a proper candidate for bail.
“The court aquo did not err. There was no misdirection at all. Fact remains he (Chin’ono) has no respect for constitutional provisions and this is shown by him calling for the government’s removal without an election,” said Mabhaudhi.
The prosecutor added that the convenors or the demonstration had indicated July 31 was only the beginning hence the threat of a violent ouster of Mnangagwa remained.
Facing mounting allegations of corruption and planned protests next week, Zimbabwe’s government stepped up a recent string of arrests of its critics, detaining the country’s most prominent investigative journalist and an opposition activist.
At least eight state agents Monday stormed the residence of Hopewell Chin’ono, the journalist who had recently exposed a corruption scandal in the health ministry. He had used social media to echo a call by activist Jacob Ngarivhume for protests next week against corruption.
Both were charged Monday with incitement to violence, according to a statement from police. A government spokesman, Nick Mangwana, said on Twitter that “no profession [is] above the law” regarding the arrest of Chin’ono.
On Tuesday, the government announced that it would impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew starting Wednesday to curb coronavirus infections. Critics linked the move to the planned protests. “This is a regime that understands that it is incredibly vulnerable. It is not there by popular legitimacy,” said Doug Coltart, part of a team of human rights lawyers working on behalf of Chin’ono and Ngarivhume. “Hopewell in particular has been at the forefront of exposing that, and Jacob is at the forefront of advocating protests against it. That’s what this is about. This is effectively an insecure regime trying to block the voices of those who want to help citizens understand the connections between corruption and their suffering.”
Western embassies and human rights groups issued calls for their swift release but Coltart said he thought it was more likely, given recent precedent after the arrest of other government critics, that bail would be denied and Chin’ono and Ngarivhume would be held past the planned protests on July 31.
“Instead of detaining those responsible for stealing public funds, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s security forces would rather employ strong-arm tactics to silence the messenger,” said Angela Quintal, Africa director at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Zimbabwe’s government is in familiar if unsettling territory. For more than a decade, cycles of hyperinflation and shortages of essential goods have plagued the country while allegations of corruption have persisted despite Mnangagwa’s pledges to reform after taking over from Mugabe.
Many of the ruling party’s top officials remain under various international sanctions, including from the United States.
Protests in Zimbabwe are often met with violence from state security forces. More than a dozen were killed in January 2019, during another period of acute economic pain. Police have warned that any protests now would violate a rule against large gatherings imposed because of the novel coronavirus.
Chin’ono, a former fellow at Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, has cultivated a massive social media following among disillusioned Zimbabweans. Coltart said Chin’ono’s cameras and computers were seized by police, who he said had yet to produce either a search or arrest warrant. Police also refused to sanitize the holding cells of Chin’ono or Ngarivhume or give them personal protective equipment until lawyers intervened, he added.