Court acquits 66 villagers for occupying Great Zim University land

Sixty-six villagers in Masvingo who were arrested for occupying land belonging to Great Zimbabwe University without lawful authority were acquitted on Thursday as the court ruled that the State failed to prove it owned the land, according to the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR).

ZLHR was representing the 66 villagers who were arrested on January 22, 2024, and the complainant in the matter was the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Fisheries and Rural Development. 

This case is one of the several cases that come as the government is currently carrying out forced evictions and arresting people who it claims have illegally settled on state agricultural property.

According to ZLHR, the 66 were initially charged for settling within a prohibited dam basin as defined in Section 56(20) of the Water Act, after prosecutors alleged they had unlawfully held, used or occupied Lake Mutirikwi basin, which is a prohibited dam basin.

The charges were later amended to contravening Section 3(1) of the Gazetted Land (Consequential Provisions) Act.

“We have ended the persecution of 66 villagers in Masvingo province, who were on trial (at Masvingo Magistrates Court) for illegally occupying state land without authority, by getting them acquitted at the close of the prosecution case,” ZLHR said in a statement.

The human rights lawyers said during trial, prosecutors alleged the 66 villagers, who include some aged over 70 years, unlawfully held, used or occupied part of Great Zimbabwe University in Masvingo, which is deemed to be state land.

“The prosecutors, who stated that the complainant in the matter was Charity Mumera, the Deputy Director in the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Fisheries and Rural Development, claimed the villagers illegally occupied pieces of state land from 2000 to date in contravention of Section 3(1) of the Gazetted Land (Consequential Provisions) Act,” ZLHR said.

At the close of the prosecution’s case, Masvingo Provincial Magistrate Farai Gwitima found the 66 villagers not guilty and acquitted them.

“The magistrate ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove the existence of a government gazette entitling the government to ownership of the pieces of the land allegedly occupied by the rural dwellers, which is an essential element of the alleged offence,” ZLHR stated.

ZLHR said the 66 villagers, who were out of custody on bail, were represented by Frank Chirairo.

The government has been claiming its operation is not intended to punish citizens but to make sure people follow proper procedures in acquiring state land.

However, war veterans and legislators have pointed out that illegal allocation of land has been taking place for years without following proper allocation channels, with people allocating land to each other through village heads, councillors, and local authorities.

Recently the Zimbabwe Communist Party (ZCP) also called on the government to compensate people who were evicted for allegedly resettling illegally on state land for the infrastructure they built after using their savings to make improvements on that land.

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