A Harare magistrate’s court was Friday told of how 39 election observers, seized Wednesday night by AK assault rifle wielding police officers were made to surrender their phones and passwords and further ordered to lie on their stomachs for three continuous hours.
The horror tale was narrated on Friday by their lawyer Alec Muchadehama who also said the group comprising Election Resource Centre (ERC) and Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) observers and volunteers was denied food while in police cells.
Armed police stormed a Harare hotel and two suburbs in the capital to arrest the observers and seize laptops and cell phones.
The group was accused of congregating to collect and collate Zimbabwe’s 23 August poll in preparation for the unlawful announcement of the election outcome.
Police say this was contrary to provisions of the country’s Electoral Act which criminalises parallel announcement of election results, a duty the law enforcement agents say was the preserve of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
The observers appeared before Harare magistrate Ngoni Nduna Friday with Muchadehama raising a number of complaints to the court’s attention.
“The first complaint relates to the delay in advising the accused of the reasons why they are before the court,” said the human rights lawyer.
“We demanded a synopsis of the facts upon which these charges are based yesterday (Thursday). None were given.
“We were only given the request for remand form today at 1250PM today and we were not even able to explain those charges to the accused persons.
“That incapacitated us from adequately preparing for these proceedings.”
Muchadehama said, “The police were heavily armed with Ak47 rifles, truncheons and other assortment of weapons swooped on the accused and arrested them in a dragnet style.
“That was around 8PM on the 23rd of August 2023. They were made to lie on their stomachs.
“Their cell phones and laptops as well as other gadgets they were using were taken away.
“At the point of taking, none of the accused were advised of the reasons why they were taking them.”
The lawyer said the police action was “in violation of subsection 60 (i) (a) which requires that an accused must be advised of the reason why they are being arrested at the time of the arrest”.
He added, “The accused only came to know of these charges around 1530PM on 24 August when warned and cautioned statements were being recorded from them.
“The third complaint is that the accused were held incommunicado.
“Upon being taken illegally, the police seized each of the accused persons’ personal cell phones, asked for the passwords, switched them off and put them on flight mode before they took them away.
“The accused persons were not able to communicate with their spouses, relatives, legal practitioners, doctors or anyone else.
“This is a clear violation of the constitution which prescribes that an accused person must be able to communicate with the outside world upon arrest. Where they are unable to do so, the state must facilitate communication.”
Muchadehama said the fourth complaint related to denial of legal representation.
“Upon their arrest, the accused specifically requested to call their legal practitioners,” he said.
“The police denied the accused to call their legal practitioners. The police went on to interview the accused in some instances taking videos of the accused persons.
“We visited Harare Central Police station on the 24th of August 2023 and police feigned ignorance regarding the whereabouts of the accused persons.
“We only managed to see the accused around 3PM yesterday (Thursday).
“The fifth complaint relates to the denial of food by the police. Since their arrest on 23 August up to now, the police have not provided the accused persons food, yet it is their duty to do so.
“The police suggested that the accused should make contributions and buy their own food which they did when it was not their duty to do so.”
The lawyer said his clients “were made to lie on their stomachs for over three hours” as they searched their place during arrest.
“When they were taken to CID HQ and CID Law and Order, they were not detained in cells. They were made to sleep on the floor without blankets, water, and proper ablution facilities.
“That kind of treatment is violation of section 53 of the constitution which prescribes that no one should be treated in a cruel manner or punishment.
“The next night they were taken to condemned cells. The cells were condemned by the Supreme Court. They are still in the state they were when they were condemned, stinky, no water, full of bed bugs.”
Muchadehama said his clients “reserve their right to challenge their placement on remand”.
“My submission is that the arrest was unlawful because there are no proper charges before the court,” he said.
“I can submit that the charges as currently framed are really grotesque and scandalous.
“They are not based on any reasonable suspicion that the accused committed any offence. This was a dragnet arrest.
“As you can, Your Worship, from the charges, there is no complainant. ZEC has not complained.
“There is no government because it was devolved. There is complaint. Zanu PF has not complained.
“Not any other political party has complained. So, the police have outdone everyone …What the state is doing is prophesying.
“There is no just cause why the accused were engaged, detained and why they are even before the court.
“The ninth complaint is that the accused are being tried in the media. They ask that their matter be dealt with by the court.
“To demonstrate my point, the police issued out a press statement on 24 August 2023.”
Lancelot Mutsokoti, appearing for the State, objected saying what the defence produced was a screenshot not showing that the statement was by the ZRP.
Muchadehama said this should be part of the State’s investigations adding that raising an objection was too early considering that the trial has not yet started.
Following the defence’s submissions, the state did not oppose bail, paving way for the observers to be granted US$200 bail each.
“You are accordingly, by consent, admitted to bail each at the sum of US$200 or equivalent interbank rate,” said the magistrate.
“You are to abide by the next three conditions; that you deposit the US$200 each, must continue to reside at the given address and not to interfere with witnesses.”
The magistrate further ordered the group to report at Harare Central CID Law and Order division every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
They will be back in court on 28 September this year.