news in depth by XOLISANI NCUBE
Twenty people have been charged with treason since the beginning of the year, prompting critics to draw parallels between President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rule with that of his predecessor Robert Mugabe.
During his 38-year autocratic rule, Mugabe’s government charged a number of its opponents with treason, but only the late Ndabaningi Sithole was convicted for plotting to topple the regime.
The veteran nationalist died before his appeal against the conviction could be heard by the courts.
Other prominent politicians and activists charged with treason under Mugabe were Joshua Nkomo, Dumiso Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku, Morgan Tsvangirai, Renson Gasela, Abel Muzorewa (all late), Welshman Ncube, Evan Mawarire, Tendai Biti, Paul Siwela and Jestina Mukoko.
A fortnight ago, seven civil society activists were arrested at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport as they returned from a trip to the Maldives where the authorities claimed they had gone for training to topple Mnangagwa. They were all charged with treason.
On Friday, High Court judge Justice Tawanda Chitapi freed George Makoni, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Gamuchirai Makura, Nyasha Mpahlo, and Farirayi Gumbonzvanda on bail.
Sithabile Dewa and Rita Nyamupinga will hear their fate tomorrow when they appear at the Harare High Court for the bail ruling.
Chitapi, however, poked holes in the prosecution’s case, saying the charges that the activists had been trained in handling small arms were difficult to sustain.
The latest arrests followed the January swoop on Harare West MP Joanna Mamombe, Mawarire, Crisis Coalition in Zimbabwe chairperson Rashid Mahiya, Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions leaders Peter Mutasa and Japhet Moyo as well as Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe president Obert Masaraure on treason charges.
According to the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which has handled most of the cases, the number of people charged with treason, which carries a death penalty, has risen to 20 in less than six months.
The National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (Nango) said the arrests contradicted the narrative that Zimbabwe was in a new dispensation.
“Shrinking of civic space is exacerbating by the day and this is against the expectations of citizens on the ‘Second Republic’ which projected itself as an inclusive, open, tolerant government that wants to distinguish itself from the past experiences,” Nango said.
“The charge of subverting a constitutionally elected government is unjustified and unwarranted.
“This charge is now a fashionable justification of arresting CSOs whose critique is not palatable to government.”
University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Eldred Masunungure said the treason trials were a power retention tactic, which was similar to methods used by Mugabe.
Masunungure, however, maintained that the two leaders were different in that Mugabe was “smarter” in his use of repression.
“You have to appreciate that November 2017 did not bring about a new system,” he said.
“It was just removing Mugabe and ending there, so I wouldn’t be surprised with the action or how the state reacts to those it terms regime change agents.
“But I disagree with the notion of comparing Mugabe and Mnangagwa.
“We have to appreciate that Mugabe was a more of a Machiavellian and was smarter in the way he approached national issues, especially those to do with national security.
“Yes, they have a mutual tactic when it comes to power retention and how to do it.”
He said the treason cases showed that Mnangagwa was ready to use the methods employed by Mugabe to keep his opponents in check.
“The drive in all this is to retain power and retain it at all cost,” Masunungure added.
“This shows that the modus operandi in dealing with dissident or regime change ideas are the same.”
Human rights lawyer Chris Mhike said the treason cases were often weak, which showed that the government would be trying to use the judiciary to fight political battles.
“Notwithstanding the constant expressions of doubt about the independence of the judiciary, the Zimbabwean state has traditionally failed to secure convictions in treason cases for a variety of reasons that include the non-viability of allegations raised against the accused persons, glaring deficiencies and implausibility of the state’s treason charges, disregard for the rule of law and invariability, the complete absurdity of the accounts presented by state
witnesses,” he said.
Mhike said the state used torture and detention to punish critics because it would be clear from the outset that the treason charges were hard to sustain.
“The state’s shameful tactics like assault and torture of persons accused of treason have not helped the government of Zimbabwe in securing convictions. It is clear that the politicisation of the justice delivery system, the militarisation of the prosecution arm, and compromises to prosecutorial independence of the
National Prosecuting Authority, among other related factors, account for the state of Zimbabwe’s dismal record in treason trials,” he said.
“It is very well possible that the state recognises from the outset, the futility of commencing criminal proceedings against the innocent political foes and vocal civil society activists, who are always the accused persons in these kinds of cases.
“But the pre-trial detention, assault and torture of the targets could perhaps, in the view of those who arrest and prosecute, still yield the chilling effect that oftentimes slows down a population’s resistance to the ways of an oppressive and blundering regime.”
Alexander Rusero, a Harare-based political analyst, echoed the same sentiments saying the police were quick to arrest people without carrying out proper investigations.
“The criminal procedure system here is one where police arrest to investigate as opposed to investigating to arrest,” he said. “The moment you put the cart before the horse, it won’t take long before realising that it’s the horse that draws the cart and not vice versa.”
MDC Alliance spokesperson Jacob Mafume said although the judiciary had refused to be used in the persecution of government critics, the treason trials were an indication that Mnangagwa’s government does not tolerate dissent.
“The issue of treason under Mnangagwa shows that Zimbabwe is under military rule and the regime only knows one way to respond to democratic discontent,” he said. “Their view is that any democratic discontent is treasonous.”
Information and Publicity permanent secretary Nick Mangwana said it was wrong to compare Mnangagwa and Mugabe based on the number of people arrested for treason.
“They are lying about the number charged under Robert Mugabe, who worked for 10 years with a state of emergency,” he said.
Meanwhile, in its monthly report, the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) said: “The government of Zimbabwe has reverted to its systematic and coordinated civil society organisations and human rights activists attack modus operandi; a path they always take when under pressure.
“Government recently on different occasions accused CSOs of regime change endeavours through coordinated demonstrations throughout the country despite Section 59 of the Zimbabwean constitution clearly providing for the right to demonstrate and petition.
“It is now apparent that these intimations were orchestrated to herald and justify the persecution of CSOs.”
The ZPP said the arrest of the seven activists was against the ideals of democracy.
“The activists’ arrest is a clear sign of criminalisation of human rights activism, which flies in the face of democratic society ideals,” the organisation said.
“Government’s targeting of activists who attended a workshop, whose scope is ‘non-violence’, is nothing short of chasing mirages and stifling clearly provided-for rights.”
One of the reasons used by the military to topple Mugabe in November 2017 was that he was stifling democracy.
At the time Mnangagwa hailed a “new and unfolding democracy” in Zimbabwe as he returned from brief exile in South Africa to take over from Mugabe.