One year ago, journalist Hopewell Rugoho-Chin’ono (Mr. Chin’ono) posted several comments on his Twitter wall with the hashtag “#ZanupfMustGo.” Additional tweets linked the then-Minister of Health to the misallocation and misappropriation of funds destined for use in battling the COVID-19 pandemic. In the ensuing year, he has received threats from suspected State agents; been arrested multiple times on apparently little or no grounds; spent a collective 84 days in pre-trial detention in a maximum-security prison facility where he faced high risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus; and has also been subjected to travel restrictions that impacted his job as a journalist. Mr. Chin’ono currently faces three separate criminal proceedings and a total possible 26 years in prison. The Zimbabwean government appears to be deliberately misusing its criminal justice system to target an outspoken journalist who has used his social media platform to raise awareness on issues of corruption, human rights violations, and bad governance in Zimbabwe.
Mr. Chin’ono was first arrested by the Zimbabwe Republic Police on July 20, 2020 on allegations of incitement to public violence. The arrest came days before a scheduled July 31 anti-corruption protest planned by opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume. On his social media account, Mr. Chin’ono had been supporting calls for protest and denouncing alleged corruption. The lower court initially refused to grant him bail and he spent 45 days in pre-trial detention at Chikurubi, a maximum-security prison. Less than 3 weeks after his release, the police again arrested him, this time for posts criticizing the judiciary and the National Prosecuting Authority. Once again, he was denied bail by the lower courts on grounds that “he had a propensity to commit crimes.” He was detained for 19 days at Chikurubi before the High Court granted him bail on appeal. He faces up to a year in prison if convicted on this matter. His freedom was short lived. Less than two months later, in January 2021, the police arrested him for a third time–once again in relation to alleged social media posts–for reportedly criticizing the police for using excessive force against a mother carrying a child. He was charged with publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the police. Again, a lower court initially denied him bail. He spent 20 days in prison before the High Court granted bail on appeal. He faces up to 20 years imprisonment for this third alleged offence.
This report has been prepared by staff and consultants of the American Bar Association (ABA), Center for Human Rights (the Center). Based upon their review of the facts and proceedings to date, they have concluded that Mr. Chin’ono’s arrests and current criminal prosecutions appear to be politically motivated. In particular, they appear to be in retaliation for posts he made on social media on matters of corruption and bad governance as well as his support of nationwide protests, which under Zimbabwe’s own Constitution and its regional and international obligations are a violation of his rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, as well as his right to participate in the conduct of public affairs. In the first case, the charges of incitement to public violence are not supported by the facts. Nowhere in the State’s case nor in Mr. Chin’ono’s tweets as outlined on the charge sheet or indictment does the State show that Mr. Chin’ono called for or incited public violence. As held by the High Court in a similar criminal case against activist Pastor Evan Mawarire, the right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed in the constitution of Zimbabwe and citizens are allowed to call for peaceful protests. In the third case, relating to allegations of publishing false information concerning the excessive use of force by a police officer (allegations which Mr. Chin’ono has denied), it appears that he was charged under a law that should no longer exist under national law, having previously been ruled by Zimbabwe’s courts to be unconstitutional. Further, regional and international human rights bodies have called for the de-criminalization of false information laws as these are inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression. States must utilize less restrictive means such as civil remedies requesting a public retraction of the statement.
With regard to the criminal proceedings against Mr. Chin’ono from July 2020 to date, these have thus far been marred with numerous due process violations. For the first arrest, he was not informed of the reason for his arrest and was denied prompt access to his legal representative. He was also not promptly informed of the charges against him. These are fundamental due process rights which are guaranteed under the national law and recognized regional and international law. During the proceedings in his first case, the Magistrate court, in a highly irregular decision, removed renowned lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa from representing Mr. Chin’ono, a decision which was widely criticized for violating his right to legal representation of his choice. While a High Court later reversed the decision, the disruption in his legal representation prolonged the proceedings in his case. In all three cases, Mr. Chin’ono was initially denied bail, resulting in him being held in prolonged pre-trial detention for a cumulative period of 84 days. As shall be detailed in the report, the repeated denial of bail raises concern regarding the court’s failure to uphold and protect Mr. Chin’ono’s right to presumption of innocence in what seems to be a calculated maneuver by the authorities to hold him in prolonged pre-trial detention, effectively punishing him in the absence of a conviction. Of further concern that the pre-trial detention period was meant to punish Mr. Chin’ono is that during his pre-trial detention, in what seems to be out of the norm, Mr. Chin’ono was held at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, where convicted persons are detained as opposed to a remand prison. This was in violation of human rights law which dictates that accused persons be held in separate facilities and treated differently from convicted prisoners, in recognition of their status as merely accused persons. Finally, holding Mr. Chin’ono in pre-trial detention during the COVID-19 pandemic heightened his risk of contracting the virus and violated international guidelines regarding incarceration during the pandemic.
The totality of the facts surrounding Mr. Chin’ono’s three arrests and the procedural irregularities in his cases to date strongly point to a misuse of the criminal justice system to harass him, particularly for raising issues of corruption and government mismanagement. Nor is his case unique. A few months before Mr. Chin’ono’s arrest, United Nations human rights experts raised alarm concerning the increased crackdown on human rights and political activists in Zimbabwe, noting that “[t]argeting peaceful dissidents, including youth leaders, in direct retaliation for the exercising of their freedom of association, peaceful assembly and freedom of expression is a serious violation of human rights law.” Mr. Chin’ono’s case is emblematic of the type of politically motivated prosecutions that critics of the authorities face in Zimbabwe. The judicial harassment of Mr. Chin’ono not only violates his individual rights but also conveys a message to other citizens that they may face similar harassment if they publicly criticize the government. It is unfortunate that while Zimbabwe, like so many other countries, is battling the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating social and economic impact on the country, the State continues to waste its resources bringing cases against journalists, human rights defenders (HRDs), and opposition members. These individuals play a crucial role in combating corruption, promoting good governance, and communicating citizens’ concerns. By silencing critical speech, the government only further erodes public trust during a time of crisis.
In light of this analysis, the report ends with recommendations to the government of Zimbabwe to respect freedom of expression, association, assembly, and the right to participate in public affairs in the country. It further calls on the authorities to:
- Immediately and unconditionally drop all the criminal charges against Mr. Chin’ono. His continued persecution and prosecution, is a violation of his right to freedom of expression and participation in matters of public interest.
- Ensure that Mr. Chin’ono is not threatened for exercising his right to freedom of expression, especially for commenting on issues of corruption in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe Republic Police must independently and thoroughly investigate the allegations of threats issued against Mr. Chin’ono for reporting on matters of corruption.
- Refrain from using the judicial apparatus to harass and intimidate journalists, HRDs, and others, ensuring all arrested and detained persons have their due process rights respected and protected. Appropriate systems and structures which ensure the independence of the judiciary must be put in place to guarantee, among other things, the right to bail especially at the lower courts and expeditious resolution of politically motivated cases.
- Ensure that all individuals under Zimbabwe’s jurisdiction are afforded the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, as well as the right to participate in public affairs, including through peaceful protests and posts on social media, without retaliation. State and non-state actors must refrain from the harassment and intimidation of individuals and institutions for exercising their rights, as well as refrain from arresting and charging journalists and others simply for the peaceful expression of their opinions online and offline.
- Ensure that the legislature repeals or revises all legislation, including false information laws, such as section 31(a)(iii) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which are inconsistent with regional and international standards and unjustifiably restrict freedom of expression. In addition, the Executive must respect and promote progressive decisions of Zimbabwe’s courts that are in tandem with regional and international standards, such as the Chimakure case.
- Put in place freedom of expression policies and promotional campaigns to make it clear that the authorities are committed to respecting and protecting the right of all to peacefully express their opinion, especially given the extent and gravity of the violations of the right to freedom of expression in recent times.
- The report further calls on the authorities to respect fair trial rights and ensure the protection of the right to health by limiting the deprivation of liberty, including pretrial detention, particularly of political prisoners, and enhancing efforts to resort to non-custodial measures during this pandemic as a measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19.