Renowned Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga has been given a suspended prison sentence after being found guilty of inciting violence by staging a peaceful protest calling for political reform.
Dangarembga and co-accused Julie Barnes were convicted of participating in a public gathering with intent to incite public violence at Harare magistrates court on Thursday. The pair were also each fined 70,000 Zimbabwe dollars (£200).
A six-month jail term was suspended for the next five years on condition that the two do not commit a similar offence.
Dangarembga was arrested in July 2020 for holding a placard inscribed “We want better. Reform our institutions” during a peaceful protest. Human rights organisations including Amnesty and the writers’ association PEN International had called for the charges to be dropped.
PEN swiftly condemned the conviction on Thursday and called on the Zimbabwe authorities “to uphold their human rights obligations and desist from persecuting dissenting voices”.
The magistrate, Barbara Mateko, said the state had proved beyond doubt that the two had staged a demonstration with the intent to incite violence.
Prize-winning Dangarembga protested against the court’s decision and said she will appeal at the high court.
“We are in a situation where media freedom is not encouraged and those like myself and Julie, my co-accused, who wish to promote freedom of the media, are found to have committed a crime,” Dangarembga, who was shortlisted for Booker prize in 2020, told journalists outside court.
“This means the space for freedom of expression is shrinking and is increasingly criminalised. However, we do intend to appeal the conviction.”
She said freedom of expression was under siege in Zimbabwe.
“Our role as citizens is being changed into a role that is not an active citizen but a subject. And we are not a monarchy as far as I know,” Dangarembga said.
The 63-year-old’s first novel, Nervous Conditions, won the African section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989. Her book This Mournable Body was nominated for a Booker prize in 2020.
Dangarembga was arrested amid a sweeping crackdown by security agencies on human rights campaigners that included the arrest of investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono.
On Twitter, Chin’ono described the ruling against Dangarembga as “one of the biggest blunders ever made by [president Emmerson] Mnangagwa’s repressive regime, they might not care, but they will regret it. It has put a magnificent global spotlight back on Zimbabwe, something Zimbabwe needed.”
Dangarembga has been a fierce critic of president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government, which has been accused of corruption and human rights violations.
As Zimbabwe faces a decisive presidential poll next year, there are growing fears that freedom of expression could be curtailed.