The trial of Abel Chikomo, the executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum finally commenced on Wednesday 13 November 2013 with the human rights campaigner pleading not guilty to charges of running an “unregistered” organisation in a court hearing viewed as yet another official harassment of civic organisations and human rights defenders.
After suffering several false starts, Chikomo’s trial commenced before Harare Magistrate Elijah Makomo where he entered a plea of not guilty.
Chikomo was arrested in 2011 and his case on charges of contravening Section 6 (3) of the Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO) Act (Chapter 17:15) took almost three years to be brought to trial.
Prosecutors allege that his organisation conducted some activities without being registered with the Social Welfare Department of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare under the PVO Act. The charge, which Chikomo denies came after the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a non-governmental umbrella organisation conducted a survey on transitional justice in Harare’s Highfield high density suburb.
Prosecutors from the National Prosecuting Authority told Magistrate Makomo that the survey conducted by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum was illegal since the organisation is not registered as a PVO. The State claims that Chikomo unlawfully instructed two of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum’s employees to commence or carry out a survey in Harare’s Highfield suburb with the intention to obtain people’s recommendations on the preferred transitional justice mechanism for Zimbabwe, without his organization registering with the Social Welfare Department under the PVO Act.
Chikomo, through his lawyer Selby Hwacha of Dube, Manikai and Hwacha Legal Practitioners, who is also a board member of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, tendered his defence outline in which he argued that he was wrongly charged and that the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum is not a private voluntary organisation which requires registration under the PVO Act.
The human rights campaigner stated that Section 2 of the PVO Act exempts “anybody or association of persons, corporate or unincorporated the benefits from which are exclusively for its own members.”
He said the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum is a forum, association and common law universitas of 20 member organisations
The State opened its case by leading evidence from Chengetai Mugidwa, a police constable, who arrested the two Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum employees.
Constable Mugidwa, who indicated that he was not the Investigating Officer in the matter absolved Chikomo of any wrong doing and stated that he was not familiar with the PVO Act which the State relied upon in prosecuting him. Mugidwa also disclosed that his only level of training in law enforcement amounted to a two months refresher course which he attended at Morris Depot Training Centre in Harare.
Chikomo’s trial resumes on Tuesday 19 November 2013 after Magistrate Makomo adjourned proceedings to allow prosecutors to summon the State’s second witness Sydney Mhishi, the Director of Social Services in the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare who tendered two letters to the Zimbabwe Republic Police “outlawing” the activities of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.