A Zimbabwean court on Thursday acquitted two British journalists from the Sunday Telegraph newspaper accused of illegally covering last month’s parliamentary elections.
”I find both of them not guilty and I will acquit them,” said Magistrate Never Diza.
”All in all, the state failed to produce evidence for the accused to answer,” she said.
The Sunday Telegraph‘s chief foreign correspondent, Toby Harnden (37), and photographer Julian Simmonds (46) had pleaded not guilty to charges of violating immigration rules and the media law barring journalists from working in Zimbabwe without accreditation.
While they were acquitted of violating the media law, they still face charges of staying in Zimbabwe beyond the seven-day tourist visa that they obtained when they crossed into the country from Zambia.
Earlier on Thursday, Zimbabwean prison authorities released the journalists on bail after defying a court order to set them free, their lawyer said.
”They have since been released,” lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said, after confirming on Thursday morning that the men were being held despite a court order on their release a day earlier.
”No explanation was given to us,” she said.
A magistrate’s court on Wednesday upheld its earlier order for the release on bail of Toby Harnden and Julian Simmonds, from the Sunday Telegraph, after prosecutors failed to produce evidence to keep them in jail.
Prison officials refused to release the journalists, saying they had been instructed by the immigration department to keep the journalists in custody.
Diza on Wednesday said that the prosecution had failed to provide evidence to appeal her decision to grant bail.
”The court has no option but to grant them bail and orders that the accused be released on the same conditions outlined last week,” said Diza.
Diza set bail at Z$1-million each (R990) and ordered the journalists to remain at the British consul’s residence in Harare for the duration of their trial.
Harnden and Simmonds were arrested on election day on March 31 at a polling station in Norton, a small town 40km west of Harare.
Mtetwa has maintained that the two men were on a holiday and that they had been granted 14-day visas — and not seven days as claimed in the charge — that were to expire on April 4.
Nine witnesses — among them three self-confessed members of the ruling party, immigration officers, police officers — have testified against the journalists since the trial opened on April 5. — Sapa-AFP