HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Tuesday threatened 20 years in jail to the author of a statement purporting to bear his signature that said the lockdown to contain the coronavirus outbreak had been extended.
Mnangagwa, who was speaking at his farm after touring Gweru city in central Zimbabwe, told state broadcaster ZBC he had not extended the 21-day lockdown. The statement that claimed the restrictions were extended was circulated on social media last week and was immediately denied by the government.
“If we catch this person it must be exemplary and they must go in for at least a level 14, which is 20 years imprisonment …. I think we need to demonstrate that we don’t want false news to be circulated,” Mnangagwa said.
The southern African nation last month published lockdown regulations, which included jail terms of up to 20 years for people who spread falsehoods regarding the outbreak.
National police spokesman Paul Nyathi said more than 5,000 people had been arrested for venturing outside their homes without permission but denied security forces had abused residents.
Rights groups say there have been a growing number of cases of abuse after the army was deployed to help police enforce the lockdown. Security forces in Zimbabwe have a history of brutality when enforcing the law.
Mnangagwa said his cabinet would meet this week to decide whether to end, adjust or extend the lockdown.
The authorities have said three people have died from the new coronavirus and 17 people have been infected in the country of 15 million people. Just over 600 people had been tested by Monday night.
Police spokesman Nyathi said police had not received any official complaints of abuse from residents.
But in a ruling, the High Court issued a warning to police after a petition by some citizens.
“It is unlawful for law enforcement officers or any other person purporting to be enforcing the regulations to affront the dignity of persons by assaulting them or ordering persons to carry out humiliating acts,” the court said.
In an editorial on Monday, the state-owned Herald newspaper criticised the police for harassing journalists doing their work during the lockdown, including forcing some to delete pictures and video that captured abuses by security forces.
Nyathi said he was not aware of the incidents.
In a separate case, the High Court ordered the government to provide enough protective clothing to frontline health workers fighting the coronavirus outbreak at state hospitals after some doctors sued the government.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Alison Williams and Mark Potter)