Lawyers representing the Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, held in prison for more than a month pending trial on charges of inciting violence, will make a fresh attempt to free him on Thursday.
Chin’ono was arrested without a warrant at his home in Harare almost five weeks ago after publishing a series of investigations into corruption in Zimbabwe. He has since been held in Chikurubi high security prison on the outskirts of the capital, and repeated bail applications have been rejected.
The new effort to free Chin’ono comes as international concern grows over an ongoing crackdown in Zimbabwe, during which between 50 and 100 opposition party officials, writers, labour activists and others have been arrested and often detained.
The US, UK, EU and others have condemned the repression. Local clergy also published a scathing open letter accusing the country’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and his government of rampant corruption and an abuse of power in what they described as an unprecedented crackdown. Images of political detainees being led to court in leg irons have caused outrage.
Trial documents reveal appalling conditions in the prison. Chin’ono is held with 40 others in a cell designed to hold 12 inmates, and is the only unconvicted prisoner, which is a breach of international law.
“I will be strong. I am fine,” he said from inside a prison van as he arrived at court on Monday, but his legal team say overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in Chikurubi make it a disaster and a Covid-19 infection risk.
Zimbabwe has 6,000 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 166 people have died of the disease during the pandemic, though the figures are thought to be a fraction of the true totals. No soap or masks have been provided to detainees in Chikurubi and there is no running water in the cells, making washing impractical.
The director of health in prisons and correctional services has also indicated that social distancing in the prison system is impossible, according to legal documents.
Chin’ono, a respected documentary maker who has worked for a number of international organisations, faces a lengthy prison sentence. The charges against him are based on a series of tweets he sent to encourage attendance at an opposition rally that was due to take place on 31 July. The authorities banned the protest, citing Covid-19 regulations, and deployed the army and riot police to disperse any demonstrators.
“What we have seen with Hopewell is unprecedented in the last 20 years. The crackdown speaks of a regime that is insecure, unstable and is lashing out against anyone it sees as a threat,” said Doug Coltart, one of the lawyers representing Chin’ono. “As the government become more and more unpopular, more and more people are going to take action and more of them will become targets of the regime.”
Mnangagwa came to power in 2017 following the military-led ousting of Robert Mugabe, whose dictatorial rule lasted almost 40 years. A former spy chief known as “the Crocodile”, he promised political and economic reform leading to major investment from overseas.
The economic situation has since deteriorated, however, plunging millions of people into poverty. Inflation is running at more than 800%, and basic foodstuffs are often difficult to obtain.
The ruling Zanu-PF party has becoming increasingly authoritarian, but the divided opposition parties have been unable to mobilise sustained protests. There are also widespread reports of systematic corruption and infighting within the country’s political elite.
At Harare magistrates court on Wednesday, the trial continued of three women, including an MP, who were abducted, sexually assaulted and badly beaten in March. They have been charged with fabricating the episode.
More than a dozen protesters, including the award-winning author Tsitsi Dangarembga, were arrested on 31 July and later freed on bail. All have been charged with inciting public violence.
More recent arrests include that of Job Sikhala, an MP for the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, who had been in hiding for weeks after being accused of mobilising anti-government protests.
Another opposition MP, Prince Dubeko Dube, has been charged with inciting violence after he gave supermarket employees two face masks marked with the words “Zanu-PF must go”.
A bail application for Sikhala was also refused on Wednesday. Outside court, armed riot police maintained a heavy presence, violently dispersing opposition supporters who had gathered to sing and shout slogans.
Evan Mawarire, a civil society activist imprisoned at Chikurubi in 2016 and 2019, said the facility was designed to dehumanise inmates.
“It is designed to kill your spirit. It removes a sense of being a worthy human being,” he said. “There is no way out. The sense of fear is there, because you are constantly being watched. It is illegal to speak about politics or anything to do with the governance of the country. That will warrant solitary confinement. You live in constant fear of the prison officers.”
There have also been various reports of assaults by police and other security agencies in recent weeks.
Soldiers assaulted Talent Jara, 63, at Munyuki shopping centre in the poor Harare neighbourhood of Epworth early this month. “I was beaten by soldiers and lost money and other valuables. I sustained injuries on my buttocks and back. I could not work for two weeks,” Jara said.
According to the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), 171 violations were recorded in Harare in July, with more elsewhere in the country.
Government spokesmen have blamed unidentified foreign agents and states for fomenting unrest in the country.
“Zimbabwe, like most countries in the world is currently grappling with challenges attendant to illegal sanctions, drought and the coronavirus pandemic,” the information secretary, Nick Mangwana, told the government-run Herald newspaper. “There is no ‘crisis’, political or otherwise.”
He said a “bandwagon of individuals and entities” were seeking to “manufacture ‘crises’ in the country with the sole aim of achieving known political goals”.