EXPLAINED | ‘Patriotic Bill’ for dummies: Here’s what will get you in trouble under controversial new law

Heated debate in Parly this week as 'Patriotic Bill' is passed

Parliament has passed the controversial Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Bill, meant to punish citizens who “wilfully damage the sovereignty and national interest” of Zimbabwe.

The bill contains several changes to existing laws, such as penalties for illegal drugs, a five-year minimum mandatory sentence for rape, a minimum 15-years for aggravated rape, plus measures on the abuse of authority by public servants. However, it is the changes relating to political activities that have grabbed public attention. Those changes have come to be known as the “Patriotic Bill” because they will punish people for what the law’s promoters call “unpatriotic acts”. 

It was passed in Parliament by a vote of 99 to 17. It now goes to Senate, and then to the President who will sign it into law. 

So, what does the law really say? What can you and can you not do under the Patriotic Bill? Does the law really make it illegal to criticise the government as widely reported? What punishments do offenders face?

Here, we simplify the law and go through the things that will get you jailed once the law is signed.  

Don’t go into a meeting that discusses sanctions or trade boycott 

Someone invites you to a meeting arranged by or involving a foreign government or agency, and you find out that sanctions may be discussed in there? Walk away. According to the law, you are committing a crime if you willfully take part in any meeting where there is “consideration of or the planning for the implementation or enlargement of sanctions or a trade boycott against Zimbabwe”. Going to a meeting – in Zimbabwe or abroad – that plans, or even considers, sanctions, will land in you in trouble.

What are sanctions anyway, according to this Bill?

The Bill says “sanctions” are when a foreign government or agency bars its people “from investing in Zimbabwe or from engaging in any economic activity in or with Zimbabwe or with any entity of Zimbabwe”, if that investment benefits the economy in any way. 

Also, it doesn’t matter if these are “targeted” sanctions or general ones.

If, for example, you knowingly go into a meeting where they’re saying “don’t invest in that agriculture company, Businessman X has shares there”, you may be charged.

Another example: Zimbabwe is excluded from AGOA, the US facility that gives some African countries preferential trade access. If you went into a meeting and called on countries or agencies to take similar action, or to call on them not to trade with Zimbabwe, you may be arrested.

Talking about military intervention? Don’t do it

If you go to a meeting where you know, or you have “reasonable grounds for believing”, that there will be talk about any military intervention in Zimbabwe or “overthrowing or overturning the constitutional government in Zimbabwe”, you will be charged. 

Ok, what if I didn’t know the meeting would talk about that?

Let’s say you walked into a meeting and didn’t know sanctions or military intervention would be talked about. If someone raises that in the meeting, and it’s proved that you then went ahead and “promoted, advanced, encouraged or advocated” for that, then you’re in trouble. It won’t be a defence that you didn’t know the agenda before the meeting. If it’s proved that you then went ahead and joined in, you will be arrested.

Say, for example, you meet donor agencies or diplomats at a meeting about the economy. Someone there asks you if sanctions or an army invasion would solve the crisis, and you say “yes” or even “maybe”, that may be a crime.  

What’s the punishment?

The punishment depends on what the meeting was about.

Did the meeting talk about armed intervention? You face treason. That’s a death sentence or life in prison. If your meeting was about overthrowing the government, that’s jail for up to 20 years. If it was about sanctions or a trade embargo on Zimbabwe, it’s a fine of (at the time of drafting) Z$200 000 or jail for 10 years, or both. 

What makes your offence worse?

There are “aggravating circumstances”. These are things that make your offence worse in court. If sanctions are actually implemented as a result of the meeting, or if a foreign government issues an advisory calling for sanctions, the court takes a harder view of your offence. 

If you’re a dual citizen, you can lose your Zimbabwe passport or residency. You may lose your right to vote or hold public office. 

If the meeting didn’t result in sanctions or armed intervention, you’re still in trouble if there’s proof that you lied in the meeting. In this case, aggravation comes if “the person made or submitted for consideration or endorsed any statement which he or she knew to be false or had no reasonable basis for believing to be true”.