The International Bar Association and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) are concerned by the recent arrest of prominent Zimbabwean investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono , following the publication of corruption allegations against Zimbabwe’s ruling elite. In a series of documents, Mr Chin’ono raised concerns that powerful individuals were profiting from multimillion-dollar deals of essential supplies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, his lead lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa has endured harassment by Zimbabwean authorities for carrying out her professional duties.
IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto said: ‘The rule of law must be paramount. Yet, at every turn, it is being flouted in Zimbabwe. The arrest of Mr Chin’ono is of great concern to the IBA. It is another example of increasing intolerance towards journalists and government critics in the country. Cynically designed to have a chilling effect on journalism, free speech and expression in Zimbabwe, international peers find the clampdown reprehensible. Further, the antics deployed to intimidate Ms Mtetwa from defending her client are absurd and have no place in a modern country with a self-assured leadership.’
Mr Chin’ono, internationally acclaimed for his reporting on endemic corruption in Zimbabwe, was arrested on 20 July 2020 and charged with ‘incitement to commit public violence’ and ‘incitement to participate in a gathering with intent to promote public violence’. If convicted, he could face up to ten years in prison. Mr Chin’ono fervently denies the charges against him, declaring that ‘journalism has been criminalised’. He has been denied bail.
Since the arrest of Mr Chin’ono, his legal representatives have been the focus of constant harassment by the Zimbabwean authorities. Most recently, on 14 August 2020, a cohort of around 50 soldiers was sent to march in front of Ms Mtetwa’s office in a blatant effort to intimidate her.
IBA Executive Director Dr Mark Ellis, commented: ‘When Emmerson Mnangagwa took up office as President of the Republic of Zimbabwe he promised a “new democratic Zimbabwe”. However, with arrests of whistle-blowers, those with dissenting voices and veiled threats being made to independent lawyers, democracy and justice are being pushed further out of reach. Neither Hopewell Chin’ono nor Beatrice Mtetwa should be facing victimisation for simply doing their jobs. Mr Chin’ono should be released immediately.’
There have been a catalogue of Zimbabwe Constitution, rule of law and human rights violations, including Mr Chin’ono being:
denied the right to speak with counsel without a prison officer present. This is in direct violation of section 50 (5)(b) of the Zimbabwean Constitution;
denied the protection of sections 61 and 62 of the Zimbabwe Constitution, which expressly guarantee the right to freedom of expression, including media freedom and the freedom to protest against government failure to act in the public interest;
ill-treated, with reports citing prevention of access to appropriate food and warm clothing;
shackled with leg cuffs, which Ms Mtetwa requested the Zimbabwe Prison and Correctional Services remove when he appeared in court; and
denied the right to a third bail hearing being heard in open court. Members of the public and media practitioners have been barred from attending.
IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996 – 2006), the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, commented: ‘The IBAHRI reminds the Zimbabwean authorities that Article 14(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides “everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” Denying Mr Chin’ono the right to have his bail hearing heard in open court, when the issue is of public interest, is a direct contravention of this well-established international legal instrument. Further, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rightsalso protects free expression, as does Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Zimbabwean President Mnangagwa had said that he would support greater freedom of expression after his predecessor Robert Mugabe was deposed. It is now time for journalists and lawyers to benefit from that aspiration.’
On 24 June 2020, the IBAHRI addressed an open letter to President Mnangagwa, urging him to release lawyers arrested for carrying out their professional duties and to respect the independence of the legal profession.
IBAHRI Co-Chair, and immediate past Secretary-General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr jur hc stated: ‘The IBAHRI is extremely concerned by the pattern of systemic harassment, humiliation, intimidation and confinement by the Zimbabwean authorities of people who have different perspectives and/or expose situations that are detrimental to society. The freedoms of expression and access to information are inalienable rights enshrined in Zimbabwe’s national, regional and international commitments, including the 1991 Windhoek Declaration. The intimidation and arbitrary detention of Zimbabwean journalists are completely contrary to these obligations. A free press is a fundamental human right and essential to democracy. Mr Chin’ono is an investigative journalist and should be released.’