KAMPALA, Uganda—There is a terrible but revealing irony about the arrest and detention in Zimbabwe of 25-year-old American Martha O’Donovan.
Over the weekend, tens of thousands of the country’s citizens took to the streets of the capital, Harare, many of them brandishing placards denouncing 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe. His army is in revolt, his wife and chosen successor, 52-year-old Grace Mugabe, is no longer seen in public, and even though he’s trying to hold on, his party and countless citizens of the country that he’s ruled for 37 years clearly want the president gone, gone, gone.
Back on Nov. 3, not even three weeks ago, Mugabe’s minions arrested O’Donovan, alleging that on the morning of Oct. 11 she posted a tweet, as the charge reads, “undermining authority of or insulting president.” Alongside a photo illustration of the man described in the police statement as “the President of Zimbabwe, Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe” on a hospital drip, the tweet read: “We are being led by a selfish and sick man.”
At this point, one might say O’Donovan was just a few days ahead of Zimbabwe’s time. But in point of fact, she said she didn’t post that tweet and it wasn’t on her account. She denied the allegations as “baseless and malicious.”
And here’s what may be the most revealing aspect of this case: such is the nature of the justice system—or injustice system—in Zimbabwe that it may well continue to press the case against O’Donovan even after Mugabe is removed.
One of the charges, subversion, carries a sentence of 20 years.
For now, O’Donovan, a native of New Jersey, is out on bail but prohibited from leaving Zimbabwe and has surrendered her passport. Twice weekly she must report to the criminal investigations department in Harare.
“Of course when someone is facing such serious allegations it’s not easy to continue with business as usual,” her lawyer Obey Shava told The Daily Beast in his first detailed interview on the case. “Definitely her life [is] seriously affected, consider the restrictions imposed on her by the court,” he says.
The offending tweet was posted from @matigary, an account with more than 23,000 followers. Prosecutors said it was linked to O’Donovan’s IP address. But the judge who released her on bail last week said there was a “patent absence of facts” in the state’s case.
“There’s no justification for her arrest apart from it being the government’s clampdown on social media,” Shava says. “This tool poses a threat to the government’s propaganda that it has been using to control the people.”
O’Donovan works as a project officer at the Magamba Network, which produces political satire and citizen journalism and has a wide reach among young people in the country.
“I think it’s sad and a direct attack on the work that Magamba does,” says friend and Magamba colleague Munya Bloggo. He says she hasn’t returned to work since her arrest. “Martha is doing well. She is strong and will pull through,” Bloggo says. “I am confident that the frivolous charges will be dropped.”
The arrest reflects an intensified government crackdown on social media in Zimbabwe. Just last month, Mugabe established a cyber security ministry for online crimes, ahead of the previously scheduled 2018 election when, despite his frail health, the nonagenarian Mugabe planned on running for re-election.
Over the last week, the political situation has been confused. As Magamba TV’s latest parody video notes, quite accurately, “Everybody is waiting in suspense, waiting to hear when the Not a Coup will be finalized.”
By most indications, the rule of Africa’s oldest tyrant appears to be over. His own party, the ZANU-PF, is demanding his resignation and threatening to impeach him if he refuses. Mugabe’s grip on power began slipping conspicuously last week, when the military took over, even as it insisted it was not taking over. The president had angered army commanders by sacking his deputy two weeks ago, in an apparent attempt to clear the way for his wife Grace Mugabe to succeed him. (Signs at Saturday’s demonstrations had her face crossed out. “Power is not Sexually Transmitted,” they read.)
How a Mugabe exit will influence Martha Donovan’s case is anyone’s guess at this stage.
“Chances are they’ll carry on prosecuting and persecuting,” says Dirk Frey, a friend of O’Donovan’s and an activist involved in Occupy Africa Unity Square. “In terms of international re-engagement, [if] they want to play nice, then the charges might get dropped.”
The Zimbabwe government’s crackdown on free expression does not appear to be softening.
Last Tuesday, more than 10 days after O’Donovan’s arrest and as the military began its take-over, police raided Magamba Network offices, confiscating computers and laptops from workers.
“Our work is very much aimed at amplifying the voices of young people and encouraging young people to speak truth to power,” says Magamba Creative Director Samm Farai Monro. “The government is worried about how the internet and new media can be used as a means to reach young people. The internet in Zimbabwe is the freest space for expression.”
Martha O’Donovan is the only employee at Magamba to be arrested. The American was a “soft target” for the Mugabe government, according to Frey.
“She’s a young woman who lives alone in town,” he says. “[And] as a foreign citizen the risk of deportation means she’s less likely to resist… because she might be afraid of being uprooted and sent back to the U.S.”
O’Donovan’s arrest and last week’s raid on Magamba offices has only emboldened the organization and proponents of free speech in Zimbabwe.
“Magamba, no matter what the state throws at us, we will always be committed to free speech,” says Monro. “We have been going for 10 years now and face many threats, intimidations, arrests and obstacles. But… what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he says.
O’Donovan is next due to appear in court Nov. 24. Her lawyer, Obey Shava, is focusing on securing a trial date for his client. If the state is not ready to give a date, he’ll make an application for refusal of further remand.
“If successful, she’ll be free to go about her business as if these charges never existed,” Shava says. “She is looking forward to the conclusion of this matter. She wants to cleanse her name.”