Biti defends money-changer in court

Tendai Biti
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HARARE – Albert Dzikamai Chekure, a 31-year-old father of two, found himself embroiled in legal trouble on April 18 when an undercover female police detective approached him at the corner of Angwa Street and Nelson Mandela Avenue.

The detective requested mobile phone airtime in exchange for US$10, using Zimbabwe’s new currency, ZiG130.

After Chekure used his phone to make the purchase and received the US$10 note, he was promptly arrested and charged with violating exchange control regulations, which prohibit the unauthorized buying or selling of foreign currency.

Chekure, a meter reader for the City of Harare, is now among over 400 people held without bail in Zimbabwean prisons for similar charges. Harare magistrate Ethel Chichera denied bail, citing the seriousness of the offense and the need to protect the new currency from black market activities.

Legal Challenge by Former Finance Minister

Former finance minister and human rights lawyer Tendai Biti, according to ZimLive has taken up Chekure’s case, appealing to the High Court. Biti argues that Chekure and others are being held on invalid charges, as the United States dollar is recognized as legal tender in Zimbabwe until 2030 and should not be considered foreign currency.

In his May 16 bail application, Biti contends that the charges against Chekure are “non-existent.”

“The Exchange Control Regulations 1996 define foreign currency as any currency other than Zimbabwean currency or gold, which is legal tender in a country other than Zimbabwe,” Biti explained. He maintained that since the US dollar is legal tender in Zimbabwe, it cannot be classified as foreign currency for the purposes of these regulations.

Historical Context and Legal Arguments

Biti provided a detailed history of Zimbabwe’s currency changes, noting that the US dollar was introduced as legal tender in Zimbabwe in 2009. He emphasized that subsequent regulations, including the Exchange Control (Amendment) Regulations 2017, have continued to recognize the US dollar as legal tender in the country.

Biti argued that the charges against Chekure are baseless and that the denial of bail was unjustified. He also highlighted the impracticality of prosecuting someone for dealing with a mere US$10, arguing that such an amount could not possibly warrant a custodial sentence.

Broader Implications

The lawyer criticized the magistrate’s ruling, stating that it was influenced by political considerations rather than legal principles. He asserted that citizens should not be criminalized for attempting to survive in an economy where the government and businesses demand payment in US dollars while paying wages in local currency.

Biti also pointed out the discrepancy in the government’s policies, which allow the use of US dollars for many transactions but do not provide ordinary citizens with sufficient access to foreign currency through official channels.

“The government’s contradictory policies are turning innocent citizens into criminals,” Biti said. “Chekure’s case is a clear example of the mismanagement of the economy and the resulting injustices faced by ordinary Zimbabweans.”

Appeal for Bail

Biti asked the High Court to grant Chekure free bail, emphasizing that the lower court’s decision was based on political factors rather than legal grounds. He argued that Chekure poses no flight risk and that there are no compelling reasons to keep him detained.

“The court’s attempt to prop up questionable monetary policies by denying bail is a dangerous precedent,” Biti warned. “The judiciary should not be used to enforce flawed economic decisions.”

The High Court is yet to make a decision on Chekure’s bail application. The case continues to highlight the broader issues of currency policy and economic management in Zimbabwe.