Acquitted journalists to be deported15/04/2005 - 14:45:13
British journalists Toby Harnden and Julian Simmonds have today been acquitted of violating Zimbabwe’s immigration laws and ordered to be deported from the country.
The two, both employed by the Sunday Telegraph, were arrested near a polling station north of the capital during the March 31 parliamentary elections.
Until April 13, President Robert Mugabe’s government held Harnden, 35, and Simmonds, 45, in jail under a special order that banned them from being released on bail. They were held first in verminous police cells, then at Harare’s grim central remand prison.
Yesterday magistrate Never Diza acquitted the men of working without a licence, ruling prosecutors had failed to prove they were working as journalists.
He acquitted them today of overstaying tourist visas, ruling they had not been warned that the visas would expire on March 27.
“We feel very pleased that justice was done in the court today,” Harnden said immediately after the verdict.
“We are looking forward to leaving Zimbabwe, getting back to Britain, seeing our families and getting on with our lives.
“I think we are going to be deported – we have been declared ’prohibited persons’ and we are going to get on the first possible flight out of the country,” he said. “We are going straight to the airport.”
Diza said it was unclear whether Harnden and Simmonds were told they were allowed to stay in Zimbabwe for a week or two weeks when they entered the country from Zambia. The visa expiry date was not marked in their passports.
“The accused will get the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
The Media Commission accredited more than 200 foreign-based journalists to cover the controversial elections but said that it refused 50 more because they or their news organisations were said to be hostile to Mugabe’s government.
A Swedish journalist who took time out from covering the election to probe the effects of Mugabe’s seizure of 5,000 white owned farms had his accreditation summarily revoked and was deported.
The US Embassy joined human rights groups in expressing fears of gross rigging and intimidation in the ruling Zanu-PF party claim to have won 78 of the 120 contested seats.
However, South African government observers and friendly regional governments said the result “reflected the popular will.”
Harnden and Simmonds were held longer than any other journalists detained here since independence in 1980 when Mugabe, now 81, gained power. In 1999 two local journalists were detained and tortured after reporting unrest in the army over Zimbabwe’s intervention in the Congo war.
The 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act has been used to ban privately owned newspapers and detain more than 40 independent journalists. None has been convicted of any of a wide range of offences under the act.
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