Zimbabwe: Two human rights defenders acquittedParis-Geneva, November 28,
2013. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an
FIDH-OMCT joint programme, welcomes the acquittal of Mr. Abel Chikomo, Executive
Director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (hereafter “the Forum”), a
coalition of 20 Zimbabwean human rights organisations advocating against
organised violence, torture and impunity in Zimbabwe, as well as the acquittal
of Ms. Beatrice Mtetwa, a human rights lawyer and board member of Zimbabwe
Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR).
On November 22, 2013, the Harare Magistrate Elijah Makomo acquitted Mr. Abel
Chikomo of charges of “managing
and controlling the operations of an illegal Private Voluntary Organisation
(PVO)”, under Section 6(3) as read with Subsection 1 of the PVO Act
(Chapter 17:15). Mr. Abel
Chikomo had been charged
since March 30, 2011, after the Forum conducted a Transitional Justice National
Survey in Harare.
“The acquittal of
Mr. Abel Chikomo is to be welcomed. Yet, we must not
forget that it comes after more than two years of an unfair judicial process
and that it arises in a context of trivialisation of judicial harassment
against human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. Time has come for the authorities
to engage into a genuine political dialogue and cooperation with civil society
organisations, which have a key role to play in the strengthening of the rule
of law, democracy and justice in Zimbabwe” said Karim Lahidji, President of
the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
In addition, on November 26, 2013, Harare Magistrate Rumbidzai Mugwagwa
finally acquitted Ms. Beatrice Mtetwa of charges of “obstructing the
course of justice” under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act,
Section 184(1)(g). The charges had been brought against her after she
reportedly rebuked the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) officers who searched -
without a search warrant - the house of her client, Mr. Thabani Mpofu, Legal
adviser of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, in March 2013. Ms.
Mtetwa had been arrested on March 17, and had remained in police custody until
she was granted bail on March 25.
“It is somehow
encouraging that judges show their independence and resilience against an
obvious political abuse of the legal system by the authorities”, noted
Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organisation Against Torture
(OMCT), in a comment on the two acquittals. “Even more important is, however, to end the practice of prosecuting
defenders on frivolous grounds with charges hanging over them for years as a
Damocles swart. This chill tactic has to stop”, he added.
On November 26, Magistrate Mugwagwa found that Ms. Mtetwa had done
nothing to interfere with police investigations, and blamed the police for
having produced contradictory testimonies in the proceedings against Ms.
In the case of Mr.
Abel Chikomo, the prosecution had claimed that he had unlawfully mandated two
employees of the Forum to conduct the Transitional Justice survey in Harare in
violation of the PVO Act, on the grounds that the Forum was not formally
registered. The latter was however acquitted after his defence argued that the
Forum did not fall under the obligation to register under the PVO Act as it is
an association and Common Law Universitas of 20 member organisations and as
section 2 of the PVO Act exempts from registration “any body or association
of persons, corporate or unincorporated, the benefits from which are
exclusively for its own members”. Besides the defence's arguments, two of
the prosecution witnesses - Mr. Constable Chengetai Mugidwa and Mr. Sydney
Mhishi - absolved Mr. Chikomo from any infringement of the PVO Act. Mr.
Mugidwa, a police constable who arrested the two Forum's employees, indicated
that he was not an investigating officer and that he was not familiar with the
PVO Act. Mr. Sydney Mhisi, Director of the Ministry of Public Service, Labour
and Social Welfare further declared that he had been asked by the police to
prepare affidavits on the registration status of the Forum, without having
interacted with Mr. Chikomo nor having seen the Forum's Constitution.
Beyond procedural irregularities, the judicial harassment against Ms.
Beatrice Mtetwa and Mr. Abel Chikomo has illustrated the failures of the police
system in Zimbabwe. The evidence gathered by the Observatory for the past few
years suggests that police and security agents are often responsible for the
arbitrary arrest, abduction, harassment or intimidation of human rights
defenders, despite their duty to carry out their mandate in an impartial and
professional way. In the light of the acquittal of Ms. Beatrice Mtetwa and Mr.
Abel Chikomo, the Observatory reiterates its call to Zimbabwean authorities to
ensure that police and security agents maintain law and order in a
depoliticised way and that they are held accountable in case of human rights
violations. More generally, Zimbabwe must ensure that the rights of human
rights defenders as enshrined in the Constitution, the United Nations
Declaration on Human Rights Defenders or the African Charter on Human and
Peoples' Rights are fully protected.
For more information,
· FIDH: Audrey Couprie:
+33 (0) 1 43 55 25 18
· OMCT: Delphine Reculeau:
+41 (0) 22 809 49 39