Matanga, Kazembe sued for refusing to surrender election observer gadgets


Brenna Matendere

Harare—Observers from two election watchdogs who were subjected to dragnet arrests during last year’s 23 August harmonised polls have sued police boss Godwin Matanga and Home Affairs minister, Kazembe Kazembe, over their gadgets that law enforcement agents seized during the raids.

The observers want Matanga and Kazembe to be held responsible for forcibly and illegally seizing their electronic gadgets—comprising mobile phones and laptops—when they were arrested on the first day of last year’s elections.

Coordinated by the Election Resource Centre (ERC) and Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), the observers set up two data centres in Harare for observation of the elections but police raided and arrested them.

They were charged with contravening Section 66(A)(1)(a) of the Electoral Act as read with section 189 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, for allegedly attempting to prematurely announce results of the elections.

However, on 30 May this year, charges against the 35 election observers were withdrawn for lack of evidence to back the State’s case.

The development has now prompted the observers to sue Matanga and Kazembe by filing an urgent court application at the High Court who, through their application, want them and the police to return the seized gadgets.

The application was filed on 18 June by their lawyer, Kossam Ncube of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR).

The observers are arguing that the police are unlawfully holding their gadgets given that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has already withdrawn charges against them.

The refusal by the police to hand over the gadgets, according to the application, is causing the observers daily inconveniences because they need them for their personal and professional use.

Section 58(1)(d)(i) of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act obliges the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) to immediately release the seized assets upon withdrawal of criminal charges.

In response to the request by the ERC and ZESN employees and volunteers, the police argued they were unable to release the gadgets owing to some undisclosed and pending investigations, despite the withdrawal of the charges.

On 25 June, High Court judge Neville Wamambo reserved his ruling after presiding over the urgent court application.

The observer missions deployed by the European Union (EU), African Union (AU) and COMESA condemned the arrest of the 35.

In their joint election observation report, the AU and Comesa said they were worried by the arrests,

“The mission is deeply concerned about the arrest of (35) civil society actors and the confiscation of computers and documents from the Election Resource Centre (ERC) and Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN). The mission recommends that investigations are expedited within the legal provisions,” said the mission.

Noted the EU mission: “These organisations are part of the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors (GNDEM), a network that follows the Declaration of Principles for non-partisan election observation. Their initial denial of legal counsel for some 12 hours raised significant concern.”

The British embassy in Harare also rapped the arrests in a statement

“We also echo the concerns of IEOMs regarding the arrest of (35) staff members from local election monitoring groups arrested by the Zimbabwean police on the night of 23 August. Independent observers must be able to carry out their duties freely,” said the embassy is a statement.

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