A man from Zimbabwe spent two nights in custody last month after allegedly saying President Robert Mugabe read the wrong speech in parliament because he was “old”, rights lawyers said on Thursday.
James Mwaya, 28, was arrested in Bindura, northern Zimbabwe after a councillor from the ruling Zanu-PF party accused of him insulting Mugabe during an altercation.
This is the second arrest under anti-insult laws reported in Zimbabwe in the last week.
Mwaya was arrested two weeks ago but the news has only just come to light after the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) group released a statement on the incident.
Arresting officers said Mwaya told the councillor: “Mugabe is old. He can no longer stand. That is why he read a wrong speech.”
That was a reference to an embarrassing gaffe in which the 91-year-old Zimbabwean head of state opened parliament last month by rereading – without apparently noticing – a speech he had already made in public.
Critics seized on the blunder as evidence the long-time ruler was getting increasingly muddled.
Mwaya was held in cells for two nights a fortnight ago and then released before a formal court appearance, the lawyers’ group said.
Prosecutors said they would “proceed by way of summons”, ZLHR said. That sometimes – but not always – means the case is dropped.
Zimbabwe’s insult laws were declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in 2013 but justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa (who is now vice president) said they were necessary and needed to stay in place.
News of Mwaya’s arrest and detention comes after that of Nduna Matshazi, a councillor for the opposition who last week unwittingly forwarded a message about Mugabe to a WhatsApp group that included ruling party supporters.
Prominent Zimbabwean journalist Nqaba Matshazi of the private Newsday paper said on Twitter that the man was his “uncle”.
“Just seen the message my uncle was arrested for allegedly insulting Mugabe… Any court will throw it out,”Matshazi tweeted this week.
The results of a year-long survey released in Zimbabwe this week showed that 90% of Zimbabweans feel they are “not very or not at all free to criticise the president”, the Mass Public Opinion Institute (which carried out the research) said.
Mugabe, a former teacher, came to power in Zimbabwe at independence in 1980. His three-and-a-half decade long rule has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses and corruption by his associates, and in latter years, spiralling economic problems.
He and his supporters deny the allegations against them and say that Zimbabwe’s economic problems are due to Western sanctions.