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Zimbabwe Opposition Leader Freed After 595 Days Behind Bars

Prolonged, Abusive Detention Underscores Justice System Concerns

Zimbabwean opposition politician Job Sikhala enters the holding cells at the magistrates court in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 24, 2024. © 2024 AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

On Tuesday, a Zimbabwe court sentenced opposition politician Job Sikhala to a suspended two-year prison term after being convicted earlier in January of inciting public violence. Sikhala had been arrested and detained on June 14, 2022. This week’s sentencing means he will be freed after being jailed for 595 days.

Sikhala, a 52-year-old former Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) member of parliament, was incarcerated at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison on charges of inciting violence in protests following the death of Moreblessing Ali, a CCC supporter. Ali’s mutilated body had been found on June 11, 2022, outside Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Sikhala’s several applications for bail while awaiting trial were denied.

A lawyer familiar with his detention told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had subjected Sikhala to solitary confinement and kept him in leg irons. His lawyers and relatives had at times been denied access to him. While in detention, Sikhala’s health deteriorated, and he had to undergo surgery.

Human Rights Watch documented ahead of national elections last year that Zimbabwe authorities were increasingly misusing the law against opposition politicians and critics of the government. Many of those arrested were denied basic due process, including the presumption of innocence and the right to bail.

An online petition started in September 2022 called on President Emmerson Mnangagwa to end the unlawful detention of Sikhala and 13 others.

On Tuesday, Sikhala’s lawyer told the media, “[T]he fact that he has been given a wholly suspended sentence highlights the horrific injustice of the fact that he has been denied bail and kept in prison all this time.”

A rights activist told Human Rights Watch that the arrests, detentions, and convictions of top opposition figures should be seen in the context of a revision to the 2022 Electoral Amendment Bill currently before parliament. The bill would prevent people convicted of some offenses, including dishonesty, misinformation, and involvement in public violence, from being nominated for election.

Zimbabwe authorities should cease the widespread and politically motivated arrests, detentions, and prosecutions of opposition politicians and supporters, civil society activists, and journalists. 

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