2008 Tutu Fellow, Hopewell Rugoho-Chin'ono, an award-winning journalist, was seized in a raid on 20 July, 2020 at his home in Harare, Zimbabwe. On Facebook Live, he managed to capture the moment the security agents entered his house to arrest him. The clip went viral and captured the imagination of the world, making headlines on various leading channels such as CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, SABC and newspapers like the Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post and the UK’s Guardian.
The government seized Hopewell without a warrant and jailed him on a charge of inciting violence after he tweeted about a protest being organised by political activist Jacob Ngarivhume. During court proceedings, Hopewell’s lawyer Doug Coltart said that under cross examination, even the investigating officer admitted there was nothing in Hopewell’s tweets that formed the basis of the charge to incite violence.
The United Nations expressed concern that the COVID-19 pandemic was being used as a pretext to clamp down on fundamental human rights. “Merely calling for a peaceful protest or participating in a peaceful protest is an exercise of recognised human rights,” it said.
He was sent to remand prison initially and eventually to the notorious Chikurubi maximum-security prison – where he was held amongst the country’s most dangerous convicted criminals, bringing his total time in detention to 43 days in dire conditions. Lawyers for Human Rights called out the conditions in which the prisoners were being held as inhuman, and Zimbabwean lawyers carried out a silent protest at the High Court, lobbying for the rights enshrined in the Zimbabwean Constitution. They placed a placard at the court entrance listing the constitutional rights that had been violated in recent weeks, in particular freedoms of assembly, expression and the media.
It took his legal team four attempts before he was granted bail by the High Court in Zimbabwe on 2 September, 2020. The bail conditions were that he lodges ZWL$10,000 with the clerk of court, surrenders his passport and title deeds to his home, resides at his given address and reports twice a week to the police. He is also not allowed to post on his Twitter account material perceived to ‘incite the holding of mass demonstrations’ until the end of the legal case.
His ordeal is not yet over, however, as his trial on charges of 'incitement to participate in a gathering with intent to promote public violence' is still to commence. Incidentally, in the lead up to his arrest, Hopewell had investigated and exposed a $60 million USD coronavirus supplies contract that enriched high-ranking members of the government. Most people believe this was the real reason for his arrest which brought widespread local and international condemnation and scrutiny of the Zimbabwean government.
Amnesty International accused the Zimbabwean government of ‘misusing the criminal justice system to persecute journalists and activists’, saying that the arrests were designed for intimidation. Along with journalists, elected opposition politicians were arrested. Foreign embassies in Harare joined the calls for Hopewell’s release while the European Union issued a statement condemning the continued incarceration of Hopewell, saying that ‘journalism is not a crime, but crucial for any democratic society’ to help curb corruption and assist development. Pope Francis also expressed his concerns when he mentioned the social media campaign #ZimbabweanLivesMatter and referenced and named Hopewell and Jacob’s detention. In a pan-African show of solidarity, a group of African writers penned a letter to the Africa Union Commission’s Moussa Faki Mahamat, calling on the AU’s direct intervention in Hopewell’s detention, and condemning his arrest and subsequent denial of bail. The group of writers noted that while the African Union was quick to tell the world that #BlackLivesMatter in the wake of the George Floyd murder and other human rights abuses by police in the United States, it had been silent about the violation of Black Lives in Africa.
In response to pressure, the Africa Union Commission chairperson said the Union was closely following the political developments in Zimbabwe. He said the Union was concerned at reports of the disproportionate use of force by security forces and to uphold the rule of law, which, he said, was a breach of the African Union Charter. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the current African Union Chair, appointed two envoys to visit Zimbabwe on the issue. In South Africa, shortly after Hopewell’s arrest, nine media organisations in South Africa wrote to Ramaphosa, calling on him to intervene in the case.
On their bail release, Hopewell and Jacob Ngarivhume made a statement to the media from outside the prison. Dressed in red and white prison clothes, Hopewell said his time in prison had provided him first-hand information that would inform future journalistic pieces on the state of prisons in the country. He said that the work that he and other journalists had done in exposing corruption in the country had led to his imprisonment. “What I saw back there validates the claims I have been making that money is being stolen by this government. The prison hospital has nothing, they couldn’t even check my high blood pressure. Looting of public funds and plundering of resources must stop.”
The world-acclaimed author, playwright and film-maker Tsitsi Dangarembga was the first person to begin demonstrating outside Hopewell’s home, shortly after his arrest, despite the threat of reprisals from the government. She was also subsequently arrested.
Bloomberg News has a short video of the events after his release.