11 WOZA members finally released from remand prison; 3 remain in custody

Eleven of the 14 WOZA members arrested on 28th May 2008 were finally released from remand prison on bail on Friday evening (13th June) after 17 days in custody. Three members, including Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, remain in custody in Chikurubi Female Prison.

Williams and Mahlangu have been denied bail because the State claims that they will organise Kenya-style violence around the election period. The third woman was detained further because the names on her identity documents were different. Her family has now produced her marriage certificate and it is hoped that her release will be secured today.

Other than suffering from colds, stomach ailments and lice, those that have been released are fine and in good spirits. All 14 are due to appear on remand in Harare Magistrate’s Court on Friday 20th June.

There is great concern at the continued detention of Williams and Mahlangu who have now been designated as ‘prisoners of conscience’ by Amnesty International. Although the defence is trying to appeal to the Supreme Court against the denial of bail, it is clear that the State is trying to keep them in custody until after the 27th June presidential run-off and perhaps much longer. As some prisoners at Chikurubi Female Prison have been on remand for several years without appearing on trial, these fears are not ungrounded.

Conditions in the prison are also not ideal. There is no running water at Chikurubi, meaning that all water has to be carried in by bucket from a near-by pond. Cells, blankets and all conditions are therefore very dirty due to the lack of adequate water. It is also extremely cold but attempts are being made to ensure that Williams and Mahlangu receive regulation jerseys, which are unavailable, hence must knitted by friends or relatives.

The State appears to be deliberately frustrating the work of the lawyers of these nonviolent human rights defenders. Most recently the office of Judge Ben Hlatshwayo who heard the appeal, is claiming that the matter cannot be further appealed to the Supreme Court because it originated in the Magistrate’s Court. Defence lawyers are currently trying to clarify what options are now available the correct legal position.

The release of the 11 members was also only secured after several suspected delaying tactics by the State. The 14 were first taken to court at 4.30 pm on Friday 30th May, several hours after the maximum 48-hour period allowed, and obviously too late for a meaningful court hearing. The group was then remanded in custody until Saturday 31st May for a bail hearing. On the 31st, Magistrate Rusinahama granted the group bail – Jenni Williams at ZWD 10 billion and the other 13 at ZWD 5 billion each – and remanded them to 6th June. The Prosecutor, Public Mpofu, immediately indicated his intention to appeal against the Magistrate’s decision and the group was further remanded in custody pending the appeal hearing.

Despite Mpofu’s assurance to the group that he was only following orders and would lodge the appeal immediately, the notice of intent to appeal was only lodged on the 5th June. The date of the appeal to the High Court was set for Tuesday 10th June. Nonetheless, the State only provided the defence with their arguments at 4pm on Monday 9th June meaning that the defence was unable to submit its replies to Judge  Hlatshwayo in time. The judge therefore postponed his ruling until Wednesday 11th June.

On the 11th, Judge Hlatshwayo dismissed the State’s appeal against 11 of the members but ordered that Williams and Mahlangu remain in custody. The State had argued that they would organise violence during the election period, and in light of the State’s zero-tolerance attitude towards pre and post-election violence (sic), they should be remanded in custody until trial.

When WOZA’s lawyer and several supporters attempted to go to Chikurubi on Wednesday afternoon to inform the group of the ruling, war veterans in a ZANU PF vehicle prevented them from entering the prison complex. The supporters were told that they would only be allowed to see the WOZA prisoners ‘when they were dead’. The war veterans then tried to force them to accompany them to the provincial ZANU PF headquarters in the city centre, a renowned torture base. Fortunately the WOZA vehicle eventually managed to evade their pursuers in the traffic, after a prolonged chase.

Shaken by their ordeal, the WOZA supporters tried to pay bail on Thursday morning only to be informed that the rules had changed that very day and now it was necessary to obtain a bail form from the prison authorities before being able to pay bail at the Magistrate’s Court.  Upon requesting the bail forms at Harare Remand Prison and Chikurubi Female Prison, the officers-in-charge at both prisons insisted that they could not understand the High Court document ordering the release of the 11 prisoners. The officer-in-charge at Chikurubi insisted that the High Court produce different documents that she could understand.

Having finally obtained the different High Court documents and bail forms from the two prisons, when the WOZA supporters tried to pay bail on Friday afternoon, they were informed that the WOZA file had been locked away. It was only with great difficulty that the bail could be paid for 11 of the WOZA group. As mentioned previously, bail could not be paid for the 12th member as she uses her maiden name but the passport she was forced to surrender is in her married name.