Jailed Zimbabwe opposition figure Sikhala set freeTue, 30 Jan 2024 20:50:04 GMT

Zimbabwean opposition politician Job Sikhala, who has spent more than a year-and-a-half in prison, was released Tuesday after a Harare court handed him a suspended sentence.An outspoken and popular government critic, Sikhala, 51, was one of the most prominent figures to be arrested in recent years in what rights groups have described as a crackdown on dissent in the southern African country.”This was an act of persecution,” Sikhala told a local media crew after being let out of a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of Harare in the evening. “These people who have kept me in this prison for a long time should understand that my determination to pay any price for the love of my country is beyond reproach”.A former lawmaker, Sikhala was convicted of inciting public violence last week at the end of a year-long trial that supporters said was politically motivated. Another opposition member of parliament, Godfrey Sithole, was also found guilty of the same charges and both were handed a two-year suspended sentence on Tuesday.A small crowd of supporters chanted and danced in celebration on the court’s steps after the verdict was read out. Sikhala, wearing a white polo shirt, suggested he was hurriedly let go by prison officials under the cover of darkness. “These people sneaked me totally out,” he is seen telling one of his lawyers standing on the side of a dimly lit road in video footage published by the NewsHawks media outlet. “I was dumped here”.His lawyers had earlier said he was to be released on Wednesday morning and had asked supporters to come greet him outside the penitentiary. Sikhala and Sithole were convicted of inciting supporters to avenge the death of their political ally Moreblessing Ali, who was murdered by a ruling party activist in May 2022. Sikahla denied the charges. It wasn’t the first brush with the law for the firebrand politician, whose long and troubled political career includes more than 60 arrests, according to his lawyers. The last one came June 2022 for a speech he gave at a memorial service for Ali, whose mutilated body was found in a well days earlier.He has been behind bars since, having unsuccessfully applied for bail more than a dozen times.- ‘Horrific injustice’ -“The fact that he has been denied bail and kept in custody all this time is a horrific injustice,” said Douglas Coltart, a defence lawyer.One of Zimbabwe’s top rights lawyers, Coltart has himself been in legal trouble recently.In September, he was arrested after objecting to police questioning two of his clients in hospital. Charges against him were dropped last week.Critics have long accused the ruling ZANU-PF, in power since independence in 1980, of using the courts to silence opposition voices. Despite his many arrests, Sikhala had previously been convicted only once in 2023 on obstruction of justice charges spanning from the same memorial service speech. Coming ahead of presidential and legislative elections in August, that verdict disqualified him from running to retain his seat in parliament.Prosecutors alleged that by blaming ZANU-PF for the murder, he had diverted investigations focused on other suspects. The ruling was later overturned in appeal.ZANU-PF won both the presidential and legislative vote in August in an election that the opposition described as fraudulent and international observers said fell short of democratic standards.