Is Change Possible in Zimbabwe, with Job Sikhala

Job Sikhala, Zimbabwean opposition leader, addresses the 16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for his remarks.

Full Remarks:

I want to greet you, honourable guests of this important Summit for Human Rights and Democracy from all four corners of the world. 

I am Job Sikhala, the surviving political prisoner from Zimbabwe. I am a prominent lawyer and was an opposition member of Parliament before my incarceration since the 14th of June 2022. And on June 14, 2022, I was arrested for representing a single mother Moreblessing Ali, who was an opposition political activist, who was brutally murdered. They cut her body into three pieces and dumped it into a deep well. By the time we finally found her, she was decomposed. And for taking on her family’s legal case, I endured 595 days of pretrial incarceration at the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.

It is disheartening to disclose said moments of traumatic experiences one has walked through in life, as it gives persecutors the satisfaction of their evil deeds. I’m just one among thousands of Zimbabweans who have become victims of persecution in my country. My arrest was nothing more than political persecution. In my political career spanning more than three decades, I have been arrested 68 times by the authorities in Zimbabwe. In nearly all of those cases, I was always found innocent.

But on 14th of June 2022, when I was 49 years old, with a wife and 11 children at home (yes, 11 children!), I was arrested and thrown into prison. This time around, they refused to release me on bail. It was the only way Zimbabwe’s corrupt regime could effectively steal the 2023 general elections, which they stopped me from contesting.

For 595 days, the state held me pretrial incarceration. They had yet to convict me for any crime, and still, they kept me caged in solitary confinement day and night, always in chains. I was denied food and visits from relatives, colleagues, and friends. Access to reading materials and prayers from a religious leader of my own choice. I am a lawyer, I know my rights. I know how corrupt and cruel Zimbabwe’s regime can be. Still, I was shocked. I had to seek multiple court orders to assert my rights.

When I became sick with severe diarrhea and vomiting, they denied me the medical doctor of my own choice. When I got sick a second time around and was passing heavy blood, they kept me chained to a hospital bed for the entirety of my treatment, despite being on a sleeping dose.

The regime made me face five trials. They blackmailed my initial legal team, led by Beatrice Mtetwa, to stop them from representing me. They threatened my lawyer, Harrison Nkomo by pointing a gun to his forehead. In the end, the state denied me legal representation on the commencement of my trial, when my lawyers were attending other cases in superior courts. And the court proceeded with my trial. Endless postponements to just keep me in caged confinement was the order of the day.

They procured two convictions. One from a law that does not even exist!! They insulted my character, labeling me an “unrepentant and incongruent criminal.” And bail rulings pronounced me guilty before the beginning of the trial. “Innocent until proven guilty” does not apply to anyone who stands up to Mnangagwa’s corrupt regime.

While I was in prison, they destroyed my legal practice. I found my office looted and my furniture scattered in different locations. Mnangagwa’s regime systematically destroyed me politically, economically, and socially. I came out and found everything ruined.

And they did not stop there. Moreblessing Ali’s family refused to bury her body until my release from prison. We were all extremely emotional when that day arrived. But they unleashed a drunken mob of disrupters onto her burial to sing obscenities against me and disrupted the funeral. And no one was arrested up to date. Imagine that your beloved daughter and mother has been brutally murdered and cut into pieces, and you can’t even hold a private or respectful funeral to bury her. 

My family also became a victim of persecution. My beloved wife, Ellen, was unjustly arrested for a spurious road traffic offence. They convicted her and confiscated her driver’s license to prevent her from bringing me food in the prison. Her driver’s license was confiscated by the state and has not yet been retained up to the present. 

And it’s not just my family. Everyone associated with me has been persecuted. Six University of Zimbabwe students, Emmanuel Sitima, Darlington Chigwena, Comfort Mpofu, Benjamin Watadza, Gamuchirai Chaburumunda, and Lionel Madamombe, were arrested for demanding my release. They were denied bail, missed their university exams, and were denied to contest the University of Zimbabwe students’ leadership elections.

Once more, I want to thank these brave students, my wife, my children, and everyone in Zimbabwe and from around the world who stood with me during this difficult period.

My persecution reflects the suffering of countless Zimbabweans. Many have endured torture, brutality, arrests, disappearances, and death for resisting our oppressors. Millions have fled persecution and embarked on an exodus into the Diaspora. There is nowhere in the world where you will not find a Zimbabwean. So many desperately want to come home to live in a free & democratic society. But that time has not yet come. 

 In fact, my persecution marked the closure of democratic space in Zimbabwe. Speaker of Parliament Jacob Mudenda and members of the ruling Zanu-PF party have obliterated our multi-party democracy. They’ve pushed opposition members of Parliament out of Parliament, and banned their activities.

In July 2023, they passed “The Patriotic Bill,” a new, repressive legislation curtailing freedom of speech and association. According to Mnangagwa’s corrupt regime, I am committing a crime just by standing here & talking to you today, and giving the testimony of what they did to me. I could be arrested again when I return home for the facts of life and the truth that I am telling you here.

They plan to pass the Private Voluntary Organizations Bill this year, which would give the Registrar unchecked authority to block pro-democracy and human rights organizations. They target the Zimbabwean lawyers for human rights and like-minded organizations who protect the vulnerable in society.

The regime has systematically destroyed the right to education and the right to demonstrate and petition. As I speak, sixteen teachers from the Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union, including their president Obert Masaraure, face criminal charges for exercising their legitimate, peaceful, and constitutional rights to petition the government. These teachers, who make a mere $250 USD per month, just wanted an increased wage. Now, they’re being accused of promoting public violence, bigotry, and breaches of peace.

Tertiary education is reserved for the children of privileged elites who’ve looted our country of every resource. Skyrocketing tuition fees have led numerous students to drop out. They find themselves on the streets, educated but unemployed, succumbing to drug addiction, and facing the grim prospect of incarceration. For nearly two years, I shared my pain with many young men and women who had been accused of taking drugs and were left to rot in prison. Our young people cannot imagine a better future.

To make matters worse, southern Africa now faces one of the worst droughts in history because of climate change. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, and Malawi are all in desperate need of aid.

In the past, Zimbabwe’s regime has distributed foreign aid along party lines, rewarding their supporters with food and starving the opposition. We pray that our citizens won’t face the same fate this time around. 

I urge the world to provide food aid to Zimbabwe. We will vigilantly watch for any discrimination in the distribution of food relief based on political affiliation.

Silence in the face of unjustified persecution is acquiescence to evil. Just as the world united against apartheid South Africa, today, we must stand together against the harassment, false imprisonment, torture, and murder of all innocent human rights advocates, no matter where they live.

That’s why I’m here today. That’s why we launched the National Democratic Working Group (NDWG) in Zimbabwe. We are a coalition of progressive forces. I serve as its chairman and facilitator, and our goal is to engage Zimbabweans in this national governance crisis. Together, I am confident that we will pave the way for a free & democratic Zimbabwe. I hope you will support us. 

Let me reassure that Zimbabwe shall be free.

May the Almighty God bless all of you.

Thank you.

 

16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 14, 2024

 

Speakers and Participants

Job Sikhala

Zimbabwean opposition leader held for 595 days in pre-trial detention

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