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Zimbabwean MP pays the price of opposition in solitary cell

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – When Zimbabwean lawmaker Job Sikhala settles down to sleep at night, he does so on the floor of an ageing maximum-security prison in Harare.

The 50-year-old opposition MP has been held in solitary for almost two months.

Jail is hardly a novel experience for the 50-year-old firebrand, who in a political career spanning more than two decades has been arrested 67 times but never been convicted, his lawyer said. Under Robert Mugabe – a liberation hero who ruled with an iron fist for 37 years – the southern African country gained a long experience with arrests of dissenters and abuse.

But rights groups say the clampdown has stepped into new territory, often featuring repeated detentions and exceptionally harsh custody, as elections loom.

“It’s worse than under Mugabe right now,” Sikhala’s lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, told AFP. The justice and information ministries as well as the national prosecuting authority did not respond to an AFP request for comment.

Sikhala was arrested in June along with fellow opposition politician and lawmaker Godfrey Sithole over a speech he gave at the memorial service for another opposition activist whose mutilated body was found in a well days earlier.

A practising lawyer, Sikhala told mourners that the woman’s spirit would come back to avenge her death, his lawyer said.

Supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party reportedly harassed funeral-goers. In turn, opponents torched the house of a ruling party official.

Sikhala was charged with inciting violence and obstructing the course of justice over his speech and for having allegedly suggested that ZANU-PF members were behind the murder.

Police have arrested a man they say was the victim’s ex-lover over the killing. Sikhala’s lawyers have denied any link between their client and the violence.

Amnesty International has described the case as “political” and a “travesty of justice”.

The rights group’s director for Zimbabwe Lucia Masuka told AFP the case is part of a pattern that has seen a string of opposition figures arrested in recent years, often on charges of inciting violence.