Zimbabwe: Woman Human Rights Defender charged after preventing demolition of trade structures (joint communication)

BACKGROUND

On 24 August 2021, I wrote a joint communication to the Government of Zimbabwe concerning the arrest and criminalisation of woman human rights defender Alice Kuvheya.

Ms. Alice Kuvheya is a human rights defender, director of the Chitungwiza Residents Trust (CHITREST), a community level trust advocating on human rights issues such as the right to health, education and a healthy environment, including in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 2019, CHITREST has expressed concern about the demolition of informal trading structures in Chitungwiza by local authorities.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication

ALLEGATIONS

On 10 June 2021, Ms. Kuvheya obtained a High Court order preventing the demolition of informal trade structures and homes in Chitungwiza and Harare.

On 11 June 2021, the Provincial Development Coordinator in Harare made a public video statement in response to the order obtained by CHITREST. In the statement, the Provincial Development Coordinator stated that the courts had been mischievously presented with misinformation by the applicants in the case and their lawyers, and that the authorities would be appealing the decision. In response, Ms. Kuvheya released a video on social media calling on the authorities to respect national legislation if evicting residents and informal traders in Chitungwiza and Harare, and urging peaceful resistance to any illegal acts.

On 14 June 2021, Ms. Kuvheya was arrested in the presence of her lawyer upon voluntarily presenting herself at St. Mary’s Police Station in Chitungwiza. She was reportedly not initially informed of the reason for her arrest, before subsequently being charged with inciting participation in a gathering with intent to promote public violence, under s.187 (1) (a) of the Criminal Law Act as read with s.37 (1) (a), as well as with incitement to commit public violence, under s.187 (1) (a) as read with s.36 (1) (a) (b). Both charges were allegedly connected to the above-mentioned video she had released on social media. Prior to presenting herself at the station, police had been searching for Ms. Kuvheya at her home for approximately a week, with the human rights defender moving into hiding.

On 16 June 2021, Ms. Kuvheya appeared before the Chitungwiza Magistrates Court, where her release from detention on remand was ordered. At the hearing, an investigation into complaints made by the human rights defender of alleged violations of due process by police officers during her arrest, including the failure of police to inform her of the reason for her arrest, was also ordered.

Two subsequent hearings in Ms. Kuvheya’s case took place on 17 and 23 June 2021, before a fourth hearing before the Chitungwiza Magistrates Court on 28 June 2021. During this hearing, the court ruled that the statement by Ms. Kuvheya, forming the base of the prosecutors case against the human rights defender, did not amount to incitement, as defined by s.187 (1) (a) of the Criminal Law Act, and removed her from remand on the charge of inciting participation in a gathering with intent to promote public violence. However, the court upheld the remand order against Ms. Kuvehya on the second charge of incitement to commit public violence. Ms. Kuvehya is currently released under bail, with her next hearing set for 27 August 2021.

UPDATE: Ms. Kuvehya appeared in court on 27 August was remanded to 13 September and again to 25 October. She is still out on bail, her next court appearance is set for 11 November.

CONCERNS

In the communication myself and other experts expressed concern at the arrest of Ms. Kuvehya, which we feared to have been carried out in direct response to her peaceful human rights work. We expressed further concern at the charges brought against her, which appear to have falsely conflated the legitimate exercise of her right to freedom of opinion and expression and peaceful assembly, in peaceful opposition to alleged illegal demolitions and evictions, with incitement to violence.

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