By Melanie Nathan, Nov. 23, 2013.
On Friday a Zimbabwe Court discharges the case against Abel Chikomo, the executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, who had been on trial for allegedly running an “unregistered” organization in contravention of the Private Voluntary Organization (PVO) Act (Chapter 17:15).
Magistrate Elijah Makomo, from Harare ‘acquitted’ Chikomo after his lawyer, Selby Hwacha, a board member of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights applied for discharge at the close of the State case after arguing that State prosecutors had failed to establish a prima facie case against the human rights campaigner.
According to a local activist who we shall not name for security reasons, “The high stakes court hearing was largely viewed as yet another official harassment of civic organizations and human rights defenders in Zimbabwe.”
Our source noted that “ The State’s case went into a spectacular collapse after Sydney Mhishi,a top government official, who serves as the Director of Social Services in the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare told the court that he was not sure whether the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum had violated the country’s laws as he could not ascertain the organization’s registration status and had not had sight of its Constitution.”
After several delays and postponements, since being charged on 8 February 2011, Chikomo entered a plea of not guilty to charges of running an “unregistered” organization at a hearing on 13 November 2013. The prosecution claimed that Abel Chikomo had unlawfully instructed two employees of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum to carry out the survey in Highfield without having registered with the Social Welfare Department under Section 6 (3) of the Private Voluntary Organization (PVO) Act (Chapter 17:15).
The Defense argued that the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum is an association and common law universitas of 20 member organisations and that section 2 of the PVO Act exempts from registration “anybody or association of persons, corporate or unincorporated, the benefits from which are exclusively for its own members”. The defense argued that, therefore, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum is not a private voluntary organization which requires registration under the PVO Act. In their testimonies, prosecution witnesses – Constable Chengetai Mugidwa and Mr. Sydney Mhishi of the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare – absolved Abel Chikomo and the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum of any wrongdoing. The magistrate ruled that there was “absolutely, absolutely no evidence” that Abel Chikomo had committed an offence under the PVO Act, adding that such “stories… should never have been brought to court at all”.
The group Front Line Defenders, welcomed this important ruling and urged that “the Zimbabwean authorities consider this judgment before charging other human rights defenders under the PVO Act.”
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