news in depth:BY MOSES MATENGA
From a university student who was thrown into remand prison on suspicion that she passed a snide remark about President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s poor performance, to police officers venting their anger on WhatsApp groups, the list of Zimbabweans arrested for allegedly insulting the Zanu PF leader keeps growing.
Hither Rujeko Mupambwa (22), a National University of Science and Technology student, became the latest Zimbabwean to be arrested under the controversial insult laws since Mnangagwa came into power three years ago.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), which has been tracking the cases and providing legal assistance to those arrested, says a worrying pattern is emerging.
ZHLR confirmed that the number of people arrested for allegedly insulting the president since Mnangagwa came into power in 2017 was now between 30 and 40.
“Many people have been arrested since 2017 for insulting Mnangagwa even during the lockdown (to slow down the spread of Covid-19),” said ZLHR spokesperson Kumbirai Mafunda.
“Nothing has changed,” he added, comparing the trend to the period between 2010 and November 2017 under the late Robert Mugabe where 200 people were arrested for allegedly undermining the authority of the president.
Mupambwa, who spent three days at the Kariba Remand Prison, will be back in court on September 10 for trial.
Prosecutors will try to prove that she insulted Mnangagwa by allegedly posting on a WhatsApp group on August 4, saying “(Mnangagwa) is insisting on Vision 2030, he is a fool, we will die being told that dream”.
Her lawyer Unite Saizi from ZLHR insists that Mupambwa did not commit any crime because she never referred to Mnangagwa by name.
“She simply said emasoni, she never said Mnangagwa or president and there is no nexus with an offence,” Saize argued.
“There is no clarity that emasoni refers to Mnangagwa.”
Lovemore Madhuku, a constitutional law expert, said the insult law was outdated and had no place in the country’s statute books.
Madhuku said it must never be a crime in a modern state to criticise the president.
“It is now only in a few countries like ours,” he said.
“It is really unnecessary and even the president need not to be protected outside the political framework.
“People can criticise him and it doesn’t affect anything.”
Madhuku believes it is Parliament’s fault that Zimbabweans continue to be arrested for criticising an elected official such as the president.
“It is a law that is no longer appropriate in a democratic society and any president in a democratic society must get used to being criticised or being attacked even in the most in temperamental language and it takes away nothing,” he said.
“It simply promotes democracy.
“Many other democracies have done away with that law and it is now only a Zimbabwean issue.
“The problem is we have a Parliament that does nothing.
“You must blame our politicians in Parliament for not having laws like that taken away.
“People must be allowed to have that frustration against the office of the president.”
Critics say the authorities are increasingly relying on the insult laws to clamp down on dissent following the imposition of lockdown restrictions to control the spread of Covid-19.
Several opposition and civil society activists have been arrested in recent months for allegedly insulting Mnangagwa.
They include Ephraim Mutombeni, the director of the Masvingo Centre for Research and Advocacy, who allegedly said Mnangagwa must resign for failing to address the economic crisis in the country.
Prosecutors said Mutombeni told people in Masvingo that: “You are suffering as a result of President Mnangagwa’s poor leadership and corruption committed by himself and his children and his failure to stem fuel price hikes and he should resign.”
Godfrey Kurauone, an MDC Alliance councillor in Masvingo, has been languishing in remand prison since early this month for allegedly insulting Mnangagwa.
Prosecutors say Kurauone must go to jail for allegedly singing: “It will soon be history when we are allowed by God to remove Mnangagwa.”
His case has attracted the attention of global leaders such as former United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who described him as a political prisoner.
Clinton, the wife of former US president Bill Clinton, called on Mnangagwa’s government to release political prisoners like Kurauone.
“I am calling for the government of Zimbabwe to release all political prisoners, including Godfrey Kurauone, who represent the country’s future.
“Justice demands it,” she tweeted.
Several other MDC Alliance activists have pending criminal cases related to the insult laws and parallels are now being drawn between Mnangagwa and Mugabe’s leadership styles.
Blessing Vava, the Crisis in Zimbabwe director, said the fact that such laws were still being used against government critics showed that Mnangagwa always had “dictatorial tendencies”.
“His obsession with power is disturbing and the sooner Zimbabweans act to stop this madness the better,” Vava said.
“At this rate we will be jailed for laughing.
“It just shows that Mnangagwa was a deceitful character from the start, his dictatorial tendencies have been exposed sooner than anyone would have imagined.”
According to the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, a person can be jailed for up to a year for insulting the president’s office.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the insult law was unconstitutional, but Mnangagwa, who was Justice minister at the time, appealed against the ruling.
This was after several Zimbabweans that were charged for allegedly insulting Mugabe challenged the law.
At the time, the nine judges that heard the case were unanimous in ruling that the law undermined freedom of expression.
Mnangagwa’s government has of late been lashing out at critics, who accuse it of stepping up repression in the face of growing pressure over its failure to halt an economic collapse.
The government is embroiled in a dispute with the Catholic Church whose bishops recently penned a hard-hitting pastoral letter, calling for an end to persecution of the opposition and civil society.
They also accused the authorities of human rights abuses and lack of tolerance.
Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said the government had sought a meeting with the Vatican representative in Harare to understand whether Catholic bishops were speaking on behalf of the Holy See.
Ziyambi described the pastoral letter written by the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference as “inappropriately prescriptive and grossly disrespectful”.
The bishops said Zimbabwe had a multi-layered crisis characterised by an imploding economy, worsening poverty, corruption and human rights abuses.
Zimbabwe’s inflation rose to over 800% this month amid what has been described as the worst economic crisis for more than a decade.
Mnangagwa is also accused of going back on his promises that he would return Zimbabwe to democracy after years of dictatorship under Mugabe.
Mugabe, who died in September last year, was toppled in a military coup in 2007 and one of the reasons for the military action was that he was stifling democracy.