Zimbabwe court rules internet shutdown during protests was illegal

Firms ordered to restore unrestricted access as judge says minister went beyond authority

People run at a protest as barricades burn  in Harare,  Zimbabwe last week. Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

People run at a protest as barricades burn in Harare, Zimbabwe last week. Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

 

Zimbabwe’s government exceeded its mandate in ordering an internet blackout during civilian protests last week, a court ruled on Monday, as authorities continued to round up opposition figures blamed for the unrest.

High court judget Owen Tagu made the ruling as legal challenges began to a brutal clampdown on dissent by the government.

Fears the country is veering back towards authoritarian rule have driven some leaders of the main opposition party into hiding.

“It has become very clear that the minister has no authority to make the directive,” Judge Tagu said in his ruling, ordering mobile operators to “to unconditionally resume the provision of full and unrestricted services to all subscribers forthwith”.

The biggest, Econet Wireless, complied with the order on Monday, it said in a message to subscribers.

The sporadic blackout, ordered by security minister Owen Ncube, began on Tuesday following the start of protests against a rise in fuel prices that turned violent.

With evidence growing that the country is slipping back into authoritarian rule, critics of president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government had accused it of switching off the internet to prevent a security clampdown being broadcast to the world.

There was no immediate comment from the internet firms, or from the government’s lawyer on whether it would appeal the judgement.

On Monday police arrested Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which called for a stay-at-home strike last week in conjunction with the fuel protest.

He faced subversion charges, his lawyer said, while the organisation’s president was in hiding.

Police say three people died during the unrest, but lawyers and human rights groups point to evidence suggesting at least a dozen were killed, while scores were treated for gunshot wounds and hundreds have been held on public order charges.

They include six opposition lawmakers, one of whom was detained on Monday, as well as pastor Evan Mawarire, a rights activist and critic of former leader Robert Mugabe, who has been held on subversion charges for urging support for the union strike.

Mawarire’s application for bail will be heard on Wednesday, his lawyer said.

The spokesman for the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said several of its leaders were also in hiding, and accused the president – nicknamed “Crocodile” during his time as a high-ranking official in Mugabe’s strong-arm administration – of seeking to “dismantle” the party.

A spokesman for Mnangagwa, who became leader after Mugabe was forced out in November 2017, said on Sunday that the crackdown was a foretaste of how authorities would respond to future unrest.

With high inflation and a shortage of cash in circulation affecting ordinary Zimbabweans’ spending power, the fragile state of the country’s economy was also in focus on Monday.

The president broke off a foreign trip during which he had been expected to pitch for investments at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

A foreign ministry source said he was now due back in Harare on Monday night.

Earlier in the day, South Africa said it had last month turned down a request from its northern neighbour for a $1.2 billion (€1.05 billion) loan.

As many businesses, including banks, shops and government offices re-opened in Harare on Monday, the government introduced subsidies for bus travel after public taxis increased prices in response to the fuel-price hike. – Reuters