Lawyers for an award-winning New York Times journalist and a Briton held in a Zimbabwe jail complained on Monday that they were being given the run-around as their clients spent a fifth day behind bars.
The Briton has been identified as Stephen Bevan (45), who has written for newspapers such as the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Observer and Sunday Mirror.
New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak (58) and Bevan were picked up at a Harare guest house on Thursday and later charged with illegally reporting on Zimbabwe’s elections. Bearak is currently the co-bureau chief of the Times‘s Johannesburg bureau.
Offices of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were also raided at the time, while a democracy advocate from the US helping local groups monitor the elections was arrested at the airport.
“It appears really that nobody wants to hear this case,” lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa told reporters, adding that the morale of the prisoners was dropping “lower and lower”.
“The duty judge is not there and the judge president is not there to allocate the case. We hope a judge will be allocated and be able to hear the case,” she said.
The lawyers launched a legal bid on Saturday to force their release after the country’s Attorney General decided there was no case against them.
“We don’t know precisely what charges they are facing. The charges were changed from the initial media-law breach to one of observing elections without accreditation,” Mtetwa said.
Mtetwa is arguing that the two journalists’ detention is illegal as the basis on which they were arrested has already been dealt with by the Attorney General’s office.
She also said there is no legal basis for deporting the men, as a deportation only arises where one has infringed the country’s laws, and no such infringement has been alleged after the initial case was thrown out by the Auditor General. Also, she added, the journalists are willing to leave the country voluntarily on the first available flight out of Zimbabwe.
The New York Times on Saturday quoted its executive editor, Bill Keller, as saying that Bearak was being held on charges “that even the government’s own lawyers recognise as baseless”. Keller called a charge that Bearak had misrepresented himself as an accredited journalist a “ludicrous assertion”.
It also quoted Tom Casey, a US State Department spokesperson, as saying: “We want to see these people released as soon as possible, and we’re going to continue to make sure that our consular officials, through our embassy in Harare, do everything they can to see that this issue is resolved and resolved successfully.”
Zimbabwean authorities barred most foreign media from covering last Saturday’s presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections and had warned they would deal severely with journalists who sneaked into the country.
However, a number of news organisations, including the BBC and CNN, have been filing reports from correspondents operating under cover.
Meanwhile, two South African satellite technicians also arrested in Zimbabwe were formally charged with defeating the ends of justice in a Harare court on Monday, the brother of one of the men said.
Abdulla Gaibee and Sipho Maseko had been waiting to hear if their application to the High Court for their release from illegal detention would be heard when they were summoned to the magistrate’s court, said Ebrahim Gaibee.
“They were taken to the magistrate’s court and formally charged with defeating the ends of justice … in colluding with other parties for their acquittals,” said Gaibee.
The two men were arrested on March 28 and were acquitted of contravening the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act last Friday. However, they were re-arrested as they left the Harare court, seemingly under the premise that the judge’s ruling was not “proper”.
The men were in Zimbabwe under the employ of Globecast, which has been providing satellite services to some broadcasters covering the Zimbabwean election. The company said the men had received the necessary accreditation to work in the country.
Gaibee said he did not know who the state thought his brother and Maseko had been colluding with. “What other parties and who we don’t know,” he said.
The formal charge means that the application brought before the High Court for their release is null and void. “Every time we step forward something knocks us back,” said Gaibee, adding that the family is worried about Abdulla.
“It’s really taking its toll now. He had a slight condition of bronchitis, which is now worse. He’s sleeping on the floor and is in an open shelter for long periods of time. Abdulla’s been kept in isolation for two days now,” he said.
He said Abdulla had been returned to Harare Central police station and it was believed that Maseko, a diabetic who was being hospitalised for his dangerously high blood-sugar levels, had been taken back to St Anne’s Hospital.
Gaibee said lawyers were drafting a new bail application. “As soon as they file, hopefully today or tomorrow, the matter will be heard,” he said.
Lawyers for human rights groups Rights & Democracy, of Canada, and the Zimbabwe Exiles’ Forum (ZEF) have roundly condemned the crackdown on foreign media and opponents of President Robert Mugabe by Zimbabwe’s security forces, demanding that the gagging of media come to a halt.
“Rights & Democracy and ZEF are deeply concerned that these are the first steps in President Robert Mugabe’s response to the results of Saturday [March] 29th’s vote. The MDC, President Mugabe’s chief opposition, has already been declared the winner in parliamentary elections.
“The international community has to take immediate steps to prevent President Mugabe from subverting the will of Zimbabwe’s electorate and from resorting to further repression and violence,” said Jean Paul Hubert, interim president of Rights & Democracy.