Reporters Without Borders wrote today to Tomaz Salamao, the executive secretary of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), urging his regional organisation to put pressure on President Robert Mugabe’s government to release journalist and human rights activist Jestina Mukoko as soon as possible.
The letter accuses the Zimbabwean courts of doing everything possible to prolong the detention of Mukoko, who has been mistreated and tortured since her arrest on 3 December with the result that her health has deteriorated considerably.
“The judicial proceedings being brought against Mukoko and her fellow defendants are a sham, their rights have been flouted and their health is in danger,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The judges supervising the proceedings are clearly taking their orders from Zimbabwe’s political authorities, who are persecuting opposition activists in an unprecedented manner that is liable to scupper the power-sharing agreement.”
Magistrate Olivia Mariga postponed Mukoko’s trial again on 6 January, meaning that she will have to remain in pre-trial custody until 14 January at least, despite the fact that a high court judge ordered her transfer to hospital on 24 December. Mariga blamed this latest postponement on the defence’s insistence on seeking compliance with the high court ruling.
It was on 24 December that Mukoko was first brought before a Harare court together with other activists. She was brought before a judge again on 5 January, when a 24-hour postponement was ordered.
She and the other activists, who are being held in Chikurubi high security prison, are charged with hatching a “terrorist plot” against President Mugabe. They are alleged to have recruited volunteers to receive military training in Botswana with a view to ousting Mugabe. Mukoko has been put in solitary confinement.
According to her lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, she is being denied her medicine and her health is very worrying. Mukoko says she has been mistreated and tortured since her arrest. Security agents allegedly kicked her and hit her several times with sharp instruments, including on the soles of her feet, and made her kneel naked on gravel.
A former programme presenter for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and then the privately-owned Voice of The People, Mukoko now heads the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a human rights organisation that has provided constant information about this year’s political violence in Zimbabwe. She was kidnapped from her home in Norton (40 km west of Harare) on 3 December by some 15 men in plain clothes.
Shadreck Manyere, a freelance press photographer who was kidnapped on 13 December, was meanwhile brought before a Harare court on 7 January on charges of banditry, sabotage and terrorism, for which he faces a prison sentence ranging from 20 years to life. The authorities accuse him of involvement in the bombings of the Criminal Investigations Department headquarters in Harare and Manyame bridge in Norton on 17 November and the bombing of Harare central police station on 20 November.
Reporters Without Borders also condemns the government’s decision to raise the fees for foreign media accreditation, which has made visiting Zimbabwe prohibitively expensive for foreign freelance journalists, especially African ones. They will now have to pay more than 10,000 US dollars to be allowed to work in the country.
The increase is indicative of the contempt the government feels towards the press in general, and the international media in particular, and its desire to engineer a news blackout about political, economic and public health developments in Zimbabwe.
Letter to SADC