Painful wait for justice

Timothy Mutsungi, 28, from Glen View spent four months in prison last year before he appeared in court on suspected burglary. He was acquitted immediately - but has never been free since then.

When he returned home from Harare Central remand prison, his wife had fled with their three-year-old son and their belongings, new occupants occupied the family’s rented home and he had lost his clerical job at a freight company. He has gone back to his parents’ house but relatives and neighbours treat him as an ex-convict.

“I have been reduced to a beggar and outcast. Over the last five months, I have tried hard to find another job but it is difficult because companies are closing down and people are being retrenched. I feel like a prisoner outside jail,” Mutsungi told The Zimbabwean.

His ordeal started in June 2013 when he visited a friend in Mufakose. After his departure, a thief burgled the house and the owners reported him to the police as their prime suspect.

He spent two days in police custody, during which he slept on the floor with no blankets and had to be brought food by his wife. She tired of visiting him after the first month. He then appeared at the Harare Magistrates’ Court and was sent to prison to await his trial.

For four months, he shuttled between prison and court only to be remanded again and again. The court’s excuses included the unavailability of the magistrate, a backlog of cases and lack of transport.

“I served sentence for a crime I never committed. There is no difference between me and those who are convicted. That is how bad our justice delivery system is,” he said. Mutsungi is among the thousands of Zimbabweans who have endured the ordeal of spending a long time in jail before being tried.

A recent study by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), in conjunction with the Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ), says incarceration of suspects before they are tried is widespread.

“Despite… constitutional guarantees, Zimbabwe continues to face challenges in ensuring the enjoyment of rights by pre-trial detainees, even though these rights are bestowed on them the moment they are arrested and detained,” says the study.

The number of pre-trail detainees is around 30 percent of the national prison population, estimated at more than 14,000.

“Over the past 14 years, persons accused of committing criminal acts in Zimbabwe have been subjected to an inefficient criminal justice system, which has lost its capacity to ensure that accused persons are guaranteed their basic rights during pre-trial detention,” states the report.

The report described conditions under which the PTDs are kept as “despicable and inhumane”. Local prisons are notorious for poor nutrition, ablutions, scarcity of clothing, lack of access to health facilities, torture by wardens and diseases.

Political prisoners have given testimonies of persecution and a deliberate denial of basic rights. Most of the more than 30 MDC-T activists who were arrested in 2011 on the allegation of murdering a senior police officer spent close to two years in jail before being acquitted.

The joint report says state agencies and resources have been used to persecute political detainees. Among these is the police, which is seen as a tool to persecute accused persons for political reasons.

“Zimbabwe’s primary law enforcement institution–the Zimbabwe Republic Police–has often been accused of, and found liable for, disregarding the rights of accused persons, including engaging in acts of torture, disregard for the rule of law, partisan application of the law and failing to investigate cases in preparation for trial, leading to extended periods of pre-trial incarceration,” says the report.

In the past, the secret service has abducted and held in communicado persons deemed dangerous by the government and released into police custody only to be ordered free by the higher courts.

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