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Removing the legal façade from the ZimRights case: A case of unjustified criminalisation
McDonald Lewanika
January 17, 2013

Okay Machisa is a good man with a good heart, one of the truly few good men that one can mention without hesitation. Hailing from Penhalonga, the 42-year-old Okay is a product of humble beginnings and man of modest means, who grew up at schools and developed a passionate love for music. He eventually taught music, and even as he carries out his other duties, still finds time to perform, arrange and organise arts events. He is an arts industry aficionado. He is father to two lovely daughters, one in High School, the other in Primary school, and husband to a loyal loving wife, Candice.

His pursuit for the Zimbabwean dream of freedom and a land full of milk and honey, took him from a profession in the theatre arts (with Rooftop Promotions) that he loved. In 2007, Machisa joined the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition where as a Programs Associate; he was specifically tasked with infusing art and creativity in the Coalition-s work. This task, he performed beyond expectations, presiding over one of the best and most successful campaigns that the Crisis Coalition has done to date, " The Get Out The Vote Campaign for 2008". The campaign had as its centre piece "Rock Da Vote Concerts".

His success in this quest saw him being persuaded to take up leadership as Director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights). At that time, after close to 20 years of existence, ZimRights was in dire need of new energy and reinvention. In a short space of time, Okay was able to infuse into ZimRights his enthusiasm, passion and creativity, and rebuild and grow its grassroots structures to the over 300 branches. It now boasts over 70,000 members from a cross section of society. In the process and through his creative leadership, the unassuming Okay won the Association accolades not just in their core-business of Human Rights defense and promotion - as ZimRights was awarded the Human Rights and Governance Award for 2010, but other uncharted waters for Civil Society, in film. A ZimRights documentary, which had a photo exhibition twinned with it, won the Best Short Film Award at the Zimbabwe Film Festival in 2010.The exhibition was staged in Zimbabwe before being banned. It was displayed internationally in Hungary, Norway, Switzerland, London, Germany, Botswana and South Africa. His ability to lead and connect people; his ability to influence and get things moving is now a record beyond reproach. This saw him being asked to Chair the Coalition that first introduced him to civil society work and gave him the opportunity to show the world his passion and love for a better Zimbabwe.

On January 4, 2012, while sitting in the High Court of Zimbabwe, attending a bail application case in which a colleague of his, Leo Chamahwinya, a Zimrights employee was questionably charged with fraud and forgery Okay was surprised to hear the Prosecution Attorneys saying that they wanted Leo remanded in custody because they could not locate the ZimRights Director. There were further allegations that the director - Machisa - had skipped the country with his Secretary Faith Mamutse, to Norway. Leo Chamahwinya, had been arrested on December 13 by Harare police, who had initially left with him from his ZimRights Office to "assist in identifying people who had allegedly been defrauding ZimRights." Leo-s lawyer, Trust Maanda, who had noticed Okay-s presence in court, promptly offered to show him to the court in a bid to secure bail for his clients, an offer the court refused.

Okay got in touch with his lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who then engaged the police on the matter, and accompanied him to the Harare central Police station on January 14, 2013, ostensibly for an interview. The visit by the end of the day had turned into an arrest, with Okay spending the night at Rhodesview Police station. For two days prominent lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa tried to secure his release through some very persuasive legal arguments which clearly showed that Okay and ZimRights had no case to answer. This was in relation to trumped up charges of Forgery and Conspiracy to commit fraud, with people who Okay didn-t know and had no dealings with ZimRights, at the Magistrate Court. Okay was remanded in custody to January 30, 2013. A clearly unmoved Magistrate Mahwe, denied Okay bail ostensibly on the grounds that his matter was "A national security issue, his co accused have all been denied bail so he cannot be treated differently and investigations are yet to be carried out at all the organization-s regional offices".

What is the issue really in this matter? It seems apparent that when finally heard, Okay and ZimRights will be exonerated of any wrong doing. It is said that the police officers who first came to ZimRights and left with Leo Chamahwinya, said they had come to help ZimRights in a case in which ZimRights could have been defrauded. The Zimbabwe Republic Police were investigating a case in which they had arrested three people found in possession of falsified documents from Headmaster-s letters to Residents permits for foreigners, one of whom had fingered Dorcas Shereni, a ZimRights Local Chapter Chairperson. She then asked her kids to call Leo for advice on what to do since Highfield police had arrested her, and thought Leo could help. The police called Leo, and on learning that he was at ZimRights, came to ZimRights on the originally stated premise.

Leo works for ZimRights and by extension for Okay. Without subverting the role of the courts, it seems, someone saw an opportunity. Okay is a careful man, and law abiding citizen. ZimRights is a registered organisation, which has legally operated for 20 years as a Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO); its mandate is clear and broad, and difficult to stray away. So what really is the issue here?

It-s almost obvious that there are several things at play. Someone somewhere saw an opportunity to dent the credibility of ZimRights by tying the institution to criminals and criminal acts they had nothing to do with as an institution. It is clear that the work of ZimRights of promoting and defending human rights is not criminal, but through charging the institution and its leader, that work is being criminalized. This is not surprising, as there is a standing ZANU PF Conference resolution made in Gweru last month to deal with "errant" NGO-s, "operating outside their mandate", which can be translated to mean organisations working on Human Rights and Governance like ZimRights and other organisations of its ilk. This link can be found based on a previous ZANU-PF conference resolution made in Bulawayo in December 2011. There is an attempt to damage the credibility of and intimidate democratic actors and misdirect the public from real issues to carefully planted ruses.

Why go after ZimRights- credibility? Credibility is loosely defined as the quality of being trusted or being believed in. Often, this is a character that one gains through time, effort, and a track record in ones- work, in the process becoming a trusted and credible commentator, actor, advocate or provider of information. To deal with the credibility of ZimRights, they have to be presented to the world, as nothing but a group of forgers and fraudsters, and see who would then want to be associated with or listen to forgers and fraudsters.

Okay-s case is not a new phenomenon, and a clear look at the above strategy shows that many a people in leadership in civil society may yet suffer the same before elections are held in Zimbabwe. Outside Leo and Okay, ZimRights is the same organisation that had to go for well over a year without its National Coordinator Cynthia Manjoro, who had to leave a suckling baby to go to jail on trumped up charges of "murder in the first degree". She only returned after 255 days when the baby, David, could walk and could say a few things except "mama". Along with Cynthia 29 other people were charged with the same crime, and 27 of them including her were released on bail after more than a year. Indications are clear that most if not all of them really had nothing to do with the so-called murder, if indeed pre-meditated murder did take place.

ZimRights is one of the oldest Civil Society Organisations in Zimbabwe. There is nothing criminal about their work, yet now it is being criminalized. These Campaigners for Human rights are now victims of their message and also their success, in a clear case of targeting by elements of the state who are afraid of an enlightened society. They feel that a society that knows and demands its rights, including the right to vote is the biggest threat to their continued existence in power. In Zimbabwe, people have started to dismiss envy and being targeted by saying "usatye kumakwa, because anomakwa ndeane bhora, asina anosiwa akadaro" (don-t be afraid to be 'targeted-, because only the one who has the ball is targeted, the one who doesn-t is left alone). This targeting, if for no other reason is an affirmation of the great work that ZimRights is doing in encouraging people to exercise their right to vote by first registering as voters. If at all ZimRights were hard pressed to find indicators of success on the work they are doing as an association, here is a loud acknowledgement from the state that they are winning. ZimRights and its members thus have to take this badge of honour, which the state thinks is targeting, and victimisation, wear it with pride and continue doing their good work.

As certain as day, ZimRights will not be the last organisation to have its work criminalized, we have already stated that it is not the first. During the course of 2012, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO-s Forum and its Director Mr. Abel Chikomo were consistently hounded and the director detained on ludicrous charges of "running an illegal organisation". A clinic in Harare, which offers clinical and counselling services, was raided in November of 2012, and some of its clinical and counseling staff charged spraying graffiti on some wall in Bulawayo. Journalists have been criminalized as liars, bribe seekers and gossipers, while the bulk of civil society have been bulkanised, and most of them labelled sell-out lap dogs of the west, European and American spies.

We have stated before that this line of march, on the part of ZANU PF and some elements of the State is not new. In the past Human Rights Defenders were persecuted and charged under laws that are repressive and would clearly show that they were being persecuted for their work, like POSA, or held under no charges at all like Jestina Mkoko. Now their work is being criminalized. It may sound a slightly different pitch but it is the same old song. Initially people may be hoodwinked by the new approach, but because the beat is the same, sooner rather than later monotony will set in. People will recall why the beat had become boring and not worth listening to. If you are credible you are credible, and it will take much more than this criminalisation to erode that credibility.

It is inevitable and imperative to conclude that as we head towards the end of the Inclusive Government (IG), the space for elections has been effectively shut by the recent anti-NGO campaign. Any NGOs that will be involved in matters distantly related to elections will be targeted..

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