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 the statement, which circulated on social media last week and was immediately denied by the government, was fake.
“That is absolutely nonsense, I have never made such a statement,” Mnangagwa said.
“If we catch this person it must be exemplary and they must go in for at least at level 14, which is 20 years imprisonment. That, I think we need to demonstrate that we don’t want false news to be circulated.”
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.
Mnangagwa said his cabinet would meet this week to decide whether to end, adjust or extend the 21-day lockdown.
The authorities have said three people have died and 17 people have been infected in the country of 15 million people. Just over 600 people had been tested by Monday night.
In the past week, Zimbabwe has deployed the army to help the police enforce the restrictions.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) group said this had resulted in an increase in cases of residents being beaten by security forces for defying the lockdown.
Police spokesman Nyathi said police had not received any official complains of abuse from residents.
ZLHR has approached the High Court on behalf of two Zimbabweans who said they were abused by security forces.
“This application seeks an order to protect residents from heavy-handed action by police and soldiers who are invading peoples homes/yards and assaulting people ordering them to stay indoors,” ZLHR said in a statement.
Zimbabwe’s security forces have a history of using heavy handed tactics when enforcing the law and against opponents of the government.
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.