Zimbabwe parliament passes law to punish 'unpatriotic' citizens

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Photo credit: AFP

Zimbabwe's parliament on Wednesday passed a controversial law that seeks to punish "unpatriotic" citizens, in yet another legislative move that contradicts President Emmerson Mnangagwa's pledge to expand freedoms.

President Mnangagwa's ruling Zanu PF used its parliamentary majority to pass the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Bill 2022, widely known as the Patriotic Bill.

The bill, which has been in the pipeline since the 2018 elections, was passed on the same day the 80-year-old ruler set 23 August as the date for the country's much-anticipated general elections.

A cabinet note issued last year said: "The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Bill, 2022, strengthens the provisions of the Criminal Code in matters relating to the sovereignty of the country by criminalising conduct that undermines the sovereignty, dignity, independence and national interests of Zimbabwe."

The bill will now be sent to the Senate, which is also dominated by Zanu PF, before President Mnangagwa signs it into law.

Former Finance Minister Tendai Biti described the bill as disgusting, comparing it to laws passed by Zimbabwe's colonial regime.

"It is indeed a sad day as Parliament has this evening passed the Patriotic Act," Biti said on Wednesday.

"The new law is an unprecedented law that seeks to outlaw the freedom of association, assembly and speech of any citizen who holds a meeting with a foreign government.

"Not even apartheid Rhodesia (Zimbabwe's colonial name) passed such a disgusting law."

The government has defended the bill by drawing comparisons with the US Logan Act, which makes it a crime for unauthorised citizens to negotiate with foreign governments that have a dispute with America.

Only two people have ever been charged with violating the Logan Act, and neither has been convicted.

Pastor Evan Mawarire, who led protests that rocked the late Robert Mugabe's regime and was jailed for his activism, said the bill was an attack on freedom of speech and association.

"Very sad day for Zimbabwe," Pastor Mawarire tweeted. "Tonight parliament passed the draconian Patriot (Bill).

"It criminalises freedom of speech, association and assembly and prohibits Zimbabweans from engaging with foreign government officials.

"Zimbabwe has become far worse than any of us could have imagined.

The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Bill is the second draconian piece of legislation to be passed by the Zimbabwean parliament this year, following the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill.

It seeks to close down civil society organisations that dabble in politics.

The bill, which was passed by the Senate in February and is awaiting President Mnangagwa's signature, has been described by United Nations experts as an attempt to close down democratic space.

Critics say the two laws are part of a sustained attack on freedom of expression by the Zimbabwean ruler, who took power in 2017 following a military coup that overthrew his predecessor.

When he returned from a brief exile in South Africa after the coup, Mr Mugabe's former vice president and long-time lieutenant promised a new kind of democracy under his rule, but he is accused of being a worse autocrat than his mentor.