MDC Alliance vice-chairperson Job Sikhala was arrested Saturday and charged with publishing falsehoods and promoting public violence – the same charges laid against journalist Hopewell Chin’ono after the two allegedly claimed on social media that a police officer had fatally assaulted a baby strapped to its mother’s back in Harare.
Sikhala, a lawyer and parliamentarian, was detained outside the Rotten Row Magistrates’ Court after jointly representing Chin’ono, who had appeared briefly before a magistrate following his arrest Friday.
The two are charged under Section 31 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act which deals with “publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State.”
Except, legal experts and human rights defenders argue the statute was struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2014 in a matter brought by two Zimbabwe Independent newspaper journalists.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), whose attorneys are representing Sikhala, said the MDC Alliance lawmaker is also accused of “undermining public confidence in law enforcement agency.”
“The charges arise from statements made on social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter) by Sikhala on the famous incident involving ‘a certain mother, child and a cop’ that took place in Harare,” the rights advocacy group said in a statement.
Sikhala and Chin’ono remain in custody. They will appear in court on Monday.
The two are said to have made the baby death claims after a viral video that showed an angry mother manhandling a police officer, with onlookers shouting “Auraya mwana (he’s killed the baby).”
But prosecutors argued during Chin’ono’s arraignment that “investigations conducted by the police established that the alleged nine-month-old baby is alive and was never assaulted by a ZRP officer with a baton contrary to the accused person’s statement.”
Legal analysts, however, were quick to scoff at the charges, accusing President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government of stifling freedom of speech while perpetuating human rights violations.
“While you get excited over the United States’ woes, your regime is busy detaining people based on non-existent laws,” said lawyer Alex Magaisa, a lecturer at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.
He was responding to a statement posted on Twitter by Zimbabwe’s foreign minister Sibusiso Moyo pointing out “U.S. fallibilities” after a violent mob loyal to lame-duck President Donald Trump overran the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday seeking to stop the confirmation of Joe Biden as the country’s next president.
“Minister Sibusiso Moyo, what is the justification of detaining Job Sikhala and Hopewell on charges based on provisions that were voided by the Constitutional Court? That’s an arbitrary rule,” Magaisa charged.-Zimlive