The two Sunday Telegraph (newspaper, UK) journalists being held in Zimbabwe are to be deported after being cleared of immigration offences.
A Zimbabwean magistrate today ruled that Toby Harnden, the paper’s chief correspondent, and photographer Julian Simmonds should “get the benefit of the doubt” over charges of overstaying their visas.
But magistrate Never Diza, who yesterday acquitted the pair of working in the country illegally, ordered that they be deported immediately after the hearing in Norton, near the capital Harare.
“We feel very pleased that justice was done in the court today,” Harnden said in a telephone interview 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.”
The two men, who claimed to be in Zimbabwe as tourists, were arrested at a polling station north of Harare on March 31 during parliamentary elections that were eventually won by Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.
They were held in police cells and Harare’s central remand prison until April 13 after state prosecutors initially blocked their release on bail.
Magistrate Diza ruled on Thursday that the prosecution had failed to prove that Harnden and Simmonds had been working as journalists, despite the discovery of shorthand notebooks and a camera in their possession.
No pictures were found on the camera and Zimbabwean authorities were unable to read the shorthand notes.
Today he ruled that Zimbabwean immigration officials handling the British men’s entry from Zambia had failed to make it sufficiently clear that they only had permission to remain in Zimbabwe for one week, rather than the two weeks they had requested.
The visa expiry date was not marked in their passports and the pair denied purposefully overstaying.
A spokeswoman for the Sunday Telegraph said the newspaper was “delighted” with the decision, adding that it hoped HarHarnden and Simmonds would be able to leave Zimbabwe this afternoon.
“While the conditions in Harare remand centre were unpleasant, Mr Harnden and Mr Simmonds received a fair and public trial, at the end of which the magistrate judged that the prosecution had failed to establish a case against them,” she said.
“We would like to thank our lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, for her work on their behalf and the British consul, David Ashford, for the unstinting help that he and his colleagues provided.”
The Zimbabwean Media Commission accredited more than 200 foreign-based journalists to cover the controversial elections but said it refused 50 more because they or their news organisations were said to be hostile to Robert 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 United States 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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