/ 2 February 2024

Zimbabwe’s Job Sikhala set free

Job Sikhala1
Job Sikhala. Photo: Supplied

Zimbabwean opposition politician Job Sikhala, who has spent more than 18 months in prison, was released on Tuesday evening after a Harare court handed him a suspended sentence.

Sikhala, a leader in the Citizens Coalition for Change, was one of the most prominent figures to be arrested in recent years in what rights groups have described as a crackdown on dissent.

“This was an act of persecution,” Sikhala told a local media crew after being let out of a maximum security prison on the outskirts of the capital Harare in the evening. 

“These people who have kept me in this prison for a long time should understand that my determination to pay any price for the love of my country is beyond reproach.”

A former MP, Sikhala was convicted of inciting public violence last week at the end of a year-long trial that supporters said was politically motivated. 

Another opposition MP, Godfrey Sithole, was also found guilty of the same charges and both were handed a two-year suspended sentence on Tuesday.

A small crowd of supporters chanted and danced in celebration on the court’s steps after the verdict was read out. 

Sikhala suggested he was hurriedly let go by prison officials under the cover of darkness.

“These people sneaked me totally out,” he told one of his lawyers in video footage published by the NewsHawks media outlet. 

“I was dumped here,” Sikhala added.

His lawyers had earlier said he was to be released on Wednesday morning and had asked supporters to greet him outside the prison. 

Sikhala and Sithole were convicted of inciting supporters to avenge the death of their political ally, Moreblessing Ali, who was murdered by a ruling party activist in May 2022. Sikhala denied the charges. 

It wasn’t the first brush with the law for the politician, whose long and troubled political career includes more than 60 arrests, according to his lawyers. 

The last one came in June 2022 for a speech he gave at a memorial service for Ali, whose mutilated body had been found in a well a few days earlier.

Sikhala has been behind bars since, having unsuccessfully applied for bail more than a dozen times.

“The fact that he has been denied bail and kept in custody all this time is a horrific injustice,” said defence lawyer Douglas Coltart. 

One of Zimbabwe’s top rights lawyers, Coltart has himself been in legal trouble recently. In September, he was arrested after objecting to police questioning two of his clients in hospital. 

Charges against him were dropped last week.

Critics have long accused the ruling Zanu-PF, in power since independence in 1980, of using the courts to silence opposition voices. 

Despite his many arrests, Sikhala had previously been convicted only once ­— in 2023 on obstruction of justice charges stemming from the same memorial service speech. 

Coming ahead of presidential and legislative elections in August last year, that verdict disqualified him from running to retain his seat in parliament.

Prosecutors alleged that by blaming Zanu-PF for the murder, he had diverted investigations focused on other suspects. The ruling was later overturned on appeal.

Zanu-PF won both the presidential and legislative vote in an election that the opposition described as fraudulent and international observers said fell short of democratic standards. — AFP