Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, jailed for 45 days and charged with inciting violence, has spoken of the appalling abuse and prison conditions he witnessed.
Chin’ono, a prominent documentary maker who was released on bail last month, said he saw inmates at Chikurubi high security prison assaulted by guards for minor offences.
“Some of the prison officers are very rude, they treat prisoners badly. Prisoners are beaten up for any small misdemeanour. I saw it and it was really bad. Some are beaten up to a point that they cannot even walk,” Chin’ono told the Guardian.
Chin’ono said he and Jacob Ngarivhume, the leader of the small opposition party Transform Zimbabwe who was arrested alongside him, were put in leg irons while at Chikurubi.
The 49-year-old, who was arrested without a warrant at his home in Harare in July after publishing a series of investigations into corruption in Zimbabwe, described conditions where prisoners eat.
“When you get out in the morning, food is served in the courtyard which has raw sewage flowing. Prisoners will just get their food and eat because there is no other option,” he said.
Between March and June, the Zimbabwe government released more than 4,000 prisoners in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus. But Chin’ono still fears an outbreak in the country’s prisons, which are ill-equipped to deal with it.
“Prisoners didn’t have masks, except for a few that had gone to the court. When prisoners fall sick and the diagnosis is Covid-19, there is no medication, they are simply isolated and given hot water to drink,” he said.
Chin’ono said social distancing is impossible in overcrowded cells. “We were living in a cell that was meant for 16 people and we were about 42 people. That is the nature of Chikurubi. It is supposed to house 1,360 prisoners, it houses over 2,000. There is no running water.”
He said he himself had coronavirus symptoms while in prison, but was still made to attend court, despite the risk to other inmates and prison guards.
“The idea was to punish me and lie to the world that Hopewell Chin’ono is fine, but the world saw that I was not fine,” he said.
Before he was taken to the high security prison, Chin’ono was held at Harare central remand prison where he shared a cell with 50 others.
“I was first taken to Harare remand prison and it was a horrible journey because you are given dirty khaki uniforms. The clothes are dirty because when prisoners wear them, they will be passed on to the next prisoner. There is no soap for prisoners to wash their dirty clothes,” he said.
“We were over 50 in that cell. At times it could go up to 100. People sleep like sardines, packed. It was really horrible. It is a haven for diseases. For 17 hours we were sleeping in this cell and there was no running water. There is only one toilet, which is in the corner. People don’t use it because there is no water to flush,” he added.
After a period in the remand facility, the authorities ordered Chin’ono and Ngarivhume to be moved to the high security prison.
“We were not convicted and we had no trial date, but because of how power is abused in Zimbabwe, we were thrown into a truck and thrown into Chikurubi,” said Chin’ono.
Chin’ono’s arrest attracted huge criticism from western governments and human rights groups.
It sparked the launch of #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, which has been supported by celebrities around the world.
Despite international pressure, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government denied Chin’ono bail three times.
Mnangagwa came to power in 2017 after the military-led ousting of former president Robert Mugabe. The former spy chief promised political and economic reform to attract international investment.
Mnangagwa has been accused of clamping down on civil liberties, arresting opposition leaders, activists and journalists.
“Human rights are in a terrible state,” said Chin’ono. “I had expected that Mnangagwa would be different from Mugabe but I was wrong. I was one of the people who asked citizens to give Mnangagwa a chance when the coup happened, but we got it wrong. This has been a misadventure of the abuse of citizens, journalists, civil society and anyone who demands that the regime respect the rule of law, they become a target.”
Chin’ono has vowed to keep up his investigative work.
“As citizens we are responsible for holding the state to account. As journalists, we have a higher responsibility to light the torch into dark corners where corruption is taking place and where the looting of public funds is taking place,” he said.