Jailed Zimbabwe opposition figure Sikhala to be releasedTue, 30 Jan 2024 15:42:40 GMT

Zimbabwean opposition politician Job Sikhala is to be released after more than a year-and-a-half in prison, his lawyers said 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. “He is now a free man. This is the only case that has been keeping him in custody, so he is going to come out,” Sikhala’s lawyer Harrison Nkomo told reporters outside the court.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 on the same charges.Both were handed a two-year suspended sentence on Tuesday. This should mean long-awaited freedom for Sikhala, with his lawyers saying he was expected to walk out Wednesday morning.A small crowd of supporters chanted and danced in celebration on the court’s steps after the verdict was read out. 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.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 in June 2022 over a speech he gave at a memorial service for Ali, whose mutilated body was found in a well days earlier.He has been held in a maximum-security prison in the capital since, having unsuccessfully applied for bail more than a dozen times.- ‘Horrific injustice’ -Douglas Coltart, another defence lawyer, said that allowing for Sikhala’s release, the lenient sentence underscored the unfair treatment his client has been subjected to.”The fact that he has been denied bail and kept in custody all this time is a horrific injustice,” he said.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 eventually 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 been previously 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 had 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.The party has since cemented its parliamentary majority, after dozens of opposition lawmakers lost their seats under what analysts said appears to be an artificial political crisis.