Charges against Tsitsi Dangarembga must be dropped, argue writers

The Zimbabwean novelist, shortlisted for this year’s Booker prize for This Mournable Body, is accused of intending to incite public violence in Harare


 Tsitsi Dangarembga leaves the Harare magistrate’s court after being freed on bail on 1 August.
 Tsitsi Dangarembga leaves the Harare magistrate’s court after being freed on bail on 1 August. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

Authors including Kazuo Ishiguro, Carol Ann Duffy and Philippe Sands have called for charges against the Booker prize-shortlisted writer Tsitsi Dangarembga to be dropped ahead of her latest appearance in a Zimbabwe court this week, saying that any other conclusion would be “an outrage”.

The Zimbabwean novelist was arrested during anti-corruption protests in Harare and charged last month with intention to incite public violence. She was freed on bail and required to appear before the court on 18 September. The hearing has been delayed twice, after prosecutors failed to appear on both occasions, with a new date set for 7 October.

Duffy, the former poet laureate, said she hoped the support from writers in the UK would provide “some comfort and solidarity”, and urged the UK ambassador Melanie Robinson “to urgently pass on this support and concern to the Zimbabwe government”.

“Peaceful protest is a human right and, particularly in circumstances where it takes courage to exercise, we must all challenge its suppression,” Duffy said.

Author and president of English PEN, Philippe Sands, added that Dangarembga “is entitled to be a peaceful protester, to assemble and express her views, entirely free from fear of arrest or persecution”.

“That is her right under the law of Zimbabwe and international law,” Sands said. “All charges should be dropped immediately, she must be allowed to walk free. Now. Anything else is an outrage.”

Duffy, Sands and Ishiguro joined authors including Sebastian Barry, Eimear McBride and Mario Vargas Llosa alongside Stephen Page, the chief executive at Dangarembga’s publisher Faber, to demand Dangarembga’s acquittal.

“By joining together and raising our voices,” Page said, “let the power of our collective call effect change.”

The delayed hearing comes three weeks after Dangarembga’s latest novel, This Mournable Body, was shortlisted for the Booker prize. The final volume in a trilogy that began with the work Nervous Conditions, the novel follows Tambudzai as she struggles to make a living in 1990s Harare. The Booker judges called it an “arresting novel from a mercurial writer”.

Dangarembga’s arrest took place on 31 July after hundreds of police and soldiers were deployed on the streets ahead of planned demonstrations against President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government. Residents were ordered to remain indoors after officials described the protests as a “planned insurrection”.

“There was a deathly silence in the streets, where neither cars nor pedestrians moved. There were no groups of demonstrators,” Dangarembga wrote for PEN, describing her arrest. “Although people in Zimbabwe want change, we do not yet have the capacity, material or psychological, to create it.”

She said that, after meeting a friend and walking towards town, she stopped at a junction, where “a strange man came up and filmed our placards without asking our permission”. When the riot police arrived, the author was told her demonstration was illegal. “There being a couple of dozen riot police in the back of the truck, I thought better of exhibiting my screenshot of the constitution. My friend and I climbed into the vehicle. Minutes later, we were sitting on a concrete floor in Borrowdale police station.”

The writer was freed on bail and required to appear in court on 18 September. When she arrived, she was informed that the prosecutor was not available and the hearing was delayed until 24 September. At her second court date, Dangarembga was told the prosecutor was unable to attend again, a lack of efficiency she called “a symptom of how the country is run”.

“I do not know why he was unable to do so,” she told the Guardian. “I also found out that my case has been moved from the criminal court to the corruption court. Again, I was not informed why this was so.”

Now due appear in court on Wednesday, the writer called her Booker nomination “a bright area in my life at a time when much is bleak”.

“Change in Zimbabwe is a tall order, but it is necessary or else the country will become another chronically failed state which will not recover in this age. We are squandering our potential,” she said.

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