Student leaders in court following February protests

Zimbabwean prosecutors have charged 11 student leaders for breach of the peace or bigotry following protests held in the capital Harare in February. The trial has highlighted possible divisions between moderates and hardliners in President Robert Mugabe's government.

The trial in connection with a demonstration at Harare Polytechnic over deteriorating standards was adjourned earlier this month and will resume on 17 April.

The state has brought five witnesses including Harare Polytechnic Acting Principal Tafadzwa Mudondo to the witness stand to bolster its charges against the students, amid accusations by activists that the authorities are trampling on academic freedom.

Mugabe's government softened its intolerance of dissenting voices in the education sector between 2009 and 2013, when his ZANU-PF party was in a unity government with the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mugabe defeated Tsvangirai in elections held last July, amid allegations of electoral fraud. The economy, which was in free fall before the unity government and had begun to recover, is once again disintegrating, with massive company closures and job losses.

Also, intolerance of dissenting voices is slowly returning.

The trial of the student leaders signals divisions in Mugabe's regime, with one faction comprising hardliners opposed to change and the other with moderates who are content to usher in some reforms to comply with the new constitution adopted in 2013 that grants citizens greater liberties.

Student anger

In a statement, the Student Solidarity Trust said witnesses at the trial of the 11 student leaders contradicted each other on what actually transpired in February during the protest.

The students, who are being represented by practitioners of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, have vehemently denied the charges levelled against them.

On trial are the president of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, Gilbert Mutubuki, its secretary general Teererai Obey Sithole, treasurer Tamuka Chikonyora, legal and academic affairs secretary Kinsley Sibanda, and education and research secretary Ephraim Mutombeni.

Also charged are Takudzwa Dzumbunu, vice-president of the student representative council at the University of Zimbabwe, Marko Haruziviishe, its secretary general, Raymond Sango, Harare provincial chair and student activists Vision Moyo, Sherpard Sithole and Annie Makoni.

They are facing charges under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, Chapter 9:23 Section 37: "Participating in gathering with intent to promote public violence, breaches of the peace or bigotry", Student Solidarity Trust said.

They were charged after 12 student activists were arrested at Harare Polytechnic following a demonstration on 27 February 2014.

Political machinations

The silence that Higher Education Minister Olivia Muchena has maintained following the student arrests and trial is in stark contrast to condemnation last week by Media, Information and Broadcasting Services Minister Jonathan Moyo, who also criticised the arrest of journalists from the privately owned Daily News.

Ironically, Moyo presided over the closure of the paper and a number of other publications between 2001 and 2004 when he headed the same ministerial portfolio and crafted restrictive legislation that also criminalised 'falsehoods'.

Daily News group editor Stanley Gama and reporter Fungisai Kwaramba were arrested in relation to a story published in January about businessman Kamal Khalfan, accusing him of shady dealings.

Moyo sprang to their defence.

"While our much-respected police should indeed be left alone to get on with their work without hindrance, it cannot be right that their otherwise excellent work should include investigating whether so-and-so in the media has told a defamatory lie against so-and-so among the rich or influential in high society," he said.

"It is worse when the matter is elevated to prosecution, as if we are not aware of the case backlog that is crippling our criminal justice system. And let's face it, there's something medieval about sending anyone to jail on grounds that they have told a lie.

"That is why criminal defamation or libel is no longer in the statute books of constitutional democracies such as ours."