HARARE – While the January 14 to 15 violence and looting in protest over the 150 percent fuel price hike cannot be condoned, we doubt if those arrested over the disturbances are getting fair trials.
With more than 1 000 people arrested throughout the country, those who have already stood trial are receiving sentences of up to five years in jail without even an option of a fine.
For some, five years for just obstructing traffic is rather too harsh and most of those randomly rounded up in police night raids at homes may actually be innocent.
A crucial aspect that should be looked at closely by the trial magistrates is that sending first offenders to jail for such lengthy periods is just but turning them into hard core criminals.
These are first offenders, most of whom joined the protests unconsciously, while some were caught in the cross-fire.
Custodial sentences should measure up to a certain degree of criminality and the courts should also make sure some of the convicted are rehabilitated in the shortest possible time, depending on the degree of the crime committed.
The arbitrary arrests have also led to detention of suspects for long as the courts are failing to try them on time. It is now close to a month since most of the people were arrested with only a few having been tried and sentenced.
In Bulawayo, there are reports of magistrates failing to cope with the backlog of those arrested while some offices have been turned into makeshift courtrooms.
This comes after the Constitutional Court ruled against seconding members of the security sector to the National Prosecuting Authority.
It is important that courts speedily process trials of those arrested, as conditions in the jails are bad with inadequate food and poor hygiene.
Some of those arrested are teenagers whose incarceration leads to them losing out on their education.
Also, fathers, guardians and mothers who are languishing in jail need to re-unite with their families.
The courts should have tried them from their homes, as this will save the taxpayer who is bankrolling their day-to-day upkeep?
We urge the human rights lawyers who are representing the accused to continue their work, as most of those arrested cannot afford legal fees.
It is also our hope that the same lawyers will have the courage to appeal against most of these harsh sentences being passed by the courts.