Journalist Hopewell Chin'ono, who exposed a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal, has been charged with inciting protest. Rights groups say COVID-19 is a convenient excuse for Zimbabwe to further crackdown on dissent.
Zimbabwe authorities have arraigned before the court prominent investigative journalist Hopewell Chin'ono as well as Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of the political group Transformation Zimbabwe.
At Harare Magistrates Court, the prosecutor accused Chin'ono of inciting Zimbabweans to join a planned anti-government protest during the coronavirus outbreak, which showed "no regard for human life".
Ngarivhume faces similar charges.
Chin'ono had most recently exposed government corruption relating the procurement of COVID-19 supplies by the health ministry -- an alleged multimillion dollar fraud dubbed "Covidgate."
As a result of Chin'ono's investigation, Health Minister Obadiah Moyo was arrested in June and subsequently fired for allegedly awarding contracts for test kits and pandemic-related protective gear at inflated costs.
At the time, Chin'ono had said he feared for his life after ruling ZANU-PF party spokesman Patrick Chinamasa accused the journalist of seeking to embarrass President Emmerson Mnangagwa by linking the president's family to the contracts.
Jacob Ngarivhume, the leader of a small opposition group, had called for the July 31 protests to push for Mnangagwa to address corruption among his officials.
The arrests of the two men on Monday drew strong criticism.
"The arrest of Chin'ono and Ngarivhume are designed to intimidate and send a message to journalists, whistleblowers and activists who draw attention to matters of interest to Zimbabwe," Amnesty International's Press Officer for Southern Africa, Robert Shivambu, told DW.
"Zimbabwean authorities must stop intimidating and misusing the criminal justice system to persecute journalists and activists who are simply exercising their [right to] freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," Shivambu said in a phone interview from Johannesburg in South Africa.
Following news of Chin'ono's arrest, the US Embassy to Zimbabwe tweeted that "exposing corruption is not a crime" while the Delegation of the European Union noted that "journalism is ... a crucial pillar of any democratic society & of the fight against corruption."
Police and government officials have defended the arrests, saying there is enough evidence to implicate Chin'ono and Ngarivhume in serious crimes and that no one is above the law.
Zanu PF joined the police to defend the arrests and accused rights groups of trying to bully state institutions by pressuring for the men's release.
"Our institutions do not arrest criminals so that they release them," Tafadzwa Mugwadi, Zanu PF spokesman, told DW.
ZANU-PF, which has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, has always displayed an utterly callous disregard for human rights, said Jeffrey Smith, director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit supporting pro-democracy initiatives.
"The record is clear," Smith commented in a text message to DW. "And the Mnangagwa regime is a continuation of this trend. It's the same corrupt cabal that has devastated Zimbabwe, and its latent potential, for decades."
Crackdown on dissent
The arrest of both Chin'ono and Ngarivhume are part of a string of detentions in the past months.
In July, police detained at least 12 health workers during a demonstration over poor pay.
In May, three female opposition members said security forces kidnapped them for days, torturing and sexually assaulted them. The government has since accused the women of faking their abductions. The women, now in jail, were arrested after leaving a rally calling for better COVID-19 palliatives for citizens.
According to Smith, COVID-19 has provided a convenient excuse for the regime in Harare to further crackdown on dissent and political opposition.
"What we see today is an emboldened and opportunistic autocratic regime running roughshod over the country and its citizens," he told DW.
Authoritarian pandemic or COVID-19 pandemic?
As of Wednesday July 22, Zimbabwean security forces will enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew between 6:00 pm and 6:00 am.
These are part of fresh measures announced on Tuesday by President Mnangagwa to curb the spread of the coronavirus following a spike in cases in recent weeks. In addition, all non-working people will be required to stay at home and may only go out to buy groceries and seek health care.
Travel between cities is banned and so too are gatherings of more than 50 people for social, religious and political reasons.
"These urgent and necessary measures will entail curtailing the freedoms we have always enjoyed and grown accustomed to," Mnangagwa said.
The latest measures effectively ban protests such as those planned for July 31, the second anniversary of a general election won by Mnangagwa.
Zimbabwe sanctions justified
The US government and the European Union have sanctioned 141 individuals and 59 companies from Zimbabwe because of human rights abuses, which include a spate of abductions and torture of civil rights activists by suspected state security agents.
Mnangagwa promised reform when he took over from his predecessor Robert Mugabe in 2017 but his government has failed to calm international worries over corruption and human rights.
"The targeted sanctions on Zimbabwe's leaders are there for a reason. And the Mnangagwa regime has given zero justification for lifting them," Jeffrey Smith said.
Smith adds: "One could make the plausible case that the situation has deteriorated further since November 2017, when the current regime ousted Robert Mugabe in a military coup."
Last week, Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo told DW on its political program Conflict Zone that international sanctions imposed on his country are a "weapon of mass destruction" that impose "untold sufferings" on the country's people, rather than its leadership.
DW's Columbus Mavhunga in Harare contributed to this report.