Zimbabwe sect leader accused of child abuse is denied bail

By Thomson Reuters Mar 19, 2024 | 6:34 AM

By Nyasha Chingono

NORTON, Zimbabwe (Reuters) – The leader of a religious sect in Zimbabwe was denied bail on Tuesday after being arrested last week for suspected child abuse when police found 251 minors working on his farm and 16 graves.

Ishmael Chokurongerwa, 56, described by police as a “self-styled prophet” appeared in court in the town of Norton near the capital Harare on Tuesday along with seven of his church members who also face charges. They were not asked to plead.

Denying them bail, Norton magistrate Christine Nyandoro argued that Chokurongerwa could use his influence to interfere with witnesses and that there would be a public outcry if he was released.

The suspects have been charged with violating the Burial and Cremation Act and the Children’s Act, after police found 251 school-age children doing manual labour at their farm, as well as 16 unregistered graves.

All eight will remain in custody until April 4, when the next hearing is scheduled, said the magistrate.

Chokurongerwa, also known as Madzibaba Ishmael, was identified by police as a leader in the Johane Masowe or “white garment” church, whose followers have previously been accused of abuse of women and children in Zimbabwe.

Around a dozen members of the church, dressed in white, attended the hearing on Tuesday but declined to speak to journalists. Chokurongerwa, who wore a towel over his head to cover his face, also did not speak.

The suspects’ lawyer, Purity Chikangaise, said she would appeal the bail ruling at the High Court.

“We are going to appeal the decision by the court. Facts must be tested on trial,” she said.

(Reporting by Nyasha Chingono; Editing by Nellie Peyton and Ros Russell)