Inconsistency of charges against activists highlight deteriorating human rights situation

Johannesburg. 21 July 2011. Zimbabwean authorities should immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against six Zimbabwean rights activists who were arrested on 19 February 2011 and charged with treason for allegedly watching videos of pro-democracy rallies in Egypt and Tunisia, said CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation today.

On 18 July 2011, the six were supposed to stand trial in the Harare Magistrates Court, but the State suddenly altered the treason charge to a lesser one of conspiring to commit public violence and the case was postponed to 22 August.

"The subjection of the activists to protracted, inconsistent and unclear legal processes constitutes a flagrant violation of their basic rights as citizens of Zimbabwe," said Netsanet Belay, Director of Policy and Research at CIVICUS. "How can a government charge its citizens with treason, subversion and now with conspiracy to promote public violence for simply watching videos of uprisings in other countries?"

The six were part of a group of 46 human rights activists, trade unionists and student leaders initially charged with treason for the same offence. The other 40 were released on 7 March and their charges dropped.

Following the postponement of their trial, the six activists, Eddson Chakuma, Antonater Choto, Hopewell Cumbo, Munyaradzi Gwisai, Tatenda Mombeyarara and Welcome Zimuto, were released under strict bail conditions under which they were forced to surrender their passports and were required to report to the Harare Police Station three times a week. Bail conditions have since been relaxed to reporting once a month and three of the accused have had their passports returned to them. CIVICUS demands that the flimsy charges be dropped and the passports of the remaining three activists be returned immediately.

Dewa Mavhinga, Regional Coordinator for Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a coalition of local democracy and human rights groups, concurs: "The spurious charges levelled against the six activists are a gross form of abuse of the law; it is persecution through prosecution which must cease forthwith." Mavhinga strongly supported the immediate and unconditional release of the activists and the withdrawal of all charges against them.

This situation is the latest incident in the ongoing deterioration of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. Over the last several months, CIVICUS and other civil society organisations and human rights bodies in Zimbabwe have reported on the deteriorating situation and breakdown in the rule of law, the repeated attempts by the government to use the courts to intimidate and harass citizens and the systematic abuse and torture of those in detention.

CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global movement of civil society dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society across the world