A Zimbabwean court has ruined the government’s assault on independent non-governmental organisations operating in the troubled southern African country after acquitting Abel Chikomo, a leading charity leader on charges of running an “unregistered” organisation.
Chikomo was discharged on Friday after his lawyer, Selby Hwacha, a board member of the country’s leading legal defence group, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), applied for the dismissal of the charges at the close of the State case after arguing that State prosecutors had failed to establish a prima facie case against the human rights campaigner.
The outcome of Chikomo’s trial, which ZLHR said was “yet another official harassment of civic organisations and human rights defenders in Zimbabwe” had been expected to have far reaching consequences for the country’s non-governmental sector estimated which boasts of over 3 000 organisations.
In his ruling, Magistrate Makomo castigated State prosecutors for bringing to court a matter, which ought not to have been before the courts as there was “absolutely” no case against Chikomo.
The State’s case went into a spectacular collapse after Sydney Mhishi,a top government official, who serves as the Director of Social Services in the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare told the court that he was not sure whether the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum had violated the country’s laws as he could not ascertain the organisation’s registration status and had not had sight of its Constitution.
Mhishi, the State’s second witness after Constable Chengetai Mugidwa, and from whom prosecutors led evidence from on Friday after he failed to pitch up in court on Monday 18 November 2013, told the court that he had just been asked by the police to prepare affidavits on the registration status of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, even though he had not interacted with Chikomo and had not had sight of his organisation’s Constitution which confirms that the non-governmental umbrella organization is exempted from registering as a private voluntary organisation which requires registration under the PVO Act.
Chikomo was arrested in 2011 and his case on charges of contravening Section 6 (3) of the Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO) Act (Chapter 17:15) took more than two years to be tried. Prosecutors alleged that his organisation conducted some activities without being registered with the Social Welfare Department under the PVO Act. The charge, which Chikomo denies, came after the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum conducted a survey on transitional justice in Harare’s Highfield high-density suburb.
Prosecutors charged that the survey conducted by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum was illegal since the organisation is not registered as a PVO. The State claims that Chikomo unlawfully instructed two of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum’s employees to commence or carry out a survey in Harare’s Highfield suburb with the intention to obtain people’s recommendations on the preferred transitional justice mechanism for Zimbabwe, without his organization registering with the Social Welfare Department under the PVO Act.
However, in his defence Chikomo, argued that he was wrongly charged and that the Forum is not a private voluntary organisation which requires registration under the PVO Act. Through his lawyer, the human rights defender argued that Section 2 of the PVO Act exempts “anybody or association of persons, corporate or unincorporated the benefits from which are exclusively for its own members. He maintained that the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum is a forum, association and common law universitas of 20 member organisations.