NORTON, Zimbabwe - A Zimbabwean court has acquitted two British journalists of charges of overstaying their visas, a day after it cleared them of more serious charges of working without accreditation.
"The accused will get the benefit of the doubt and I find the accused not guilty and acquitted," Magistrate Never Diza told the hearing in Norton, near the capital Harare.
However, he said the Sunday Telegraph’s Toby Harnden and Julian Simmonds, who had been out on bail, would be handed to immigration officials for immediate deportation.
"We feel pleased that justice has been done in court today and we look forward to getting back to Britain, seeing our families and getting on with our lives," an elated Harnden told reporters after the verdict.
Outside the court, the two men were hugged by well wishers and relatives, including Harnden’s parents who flew in from Britain and were in court on Thursday and Friday.
On Thursday, Diza said state prosecutors had failed to prove that the two men, arrested in Norton on March 31 as Zimbabwe held parliamentary elections, had covered the polls without accreditation in violation of stringent media laws.
Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party went on to win the election amid charges of vote-rigging from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Harnden and Simmonds had argued that they were visiting Zimbabwe as tourists, and while state investigators did seize notebooks and a camera, they were unable to decipher the written shorthand and the camera contained no images.
The pair also denied purposefully overstaying their visas, saying they believed they had been given the 14-day period they requested, instead of just seven days.
Defence lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said the immigration officer who dealt with the two had failed to indicate clearly when their visas would expire and pointed out that state lawyers had failed to call him to testify.
Prosecutor Albert Masamha argued that the men’s travel documents each had endorsements with the figure 7 denoting the number of days they had, and that the onus had been on them to seek clarification with immigration officials.