U.S. woman arrested in Zimbabwe is ordered freed on bail

U.S. citizen Martha O' Donovan, escorted by a plainclothes police officer, appears at the Harare Magistrates Court on Saturday.
(Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / Associated Press)

A U.S. citizen charged with subversion in Zimbabwe and accused of insulting its 93-year-old president as a “sick man” on Twitter should be freed on $1,000 bail, a judge ordered Thursday.

Martha O’Donovan also must hand over her passport and report to police twice a week. The New Jersey native will return to court on Nov. 15.

The 25-year-old O’Donovan faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the subversion charge. She also faces a charge of undermining the authority of or insulting the president, which carries up to a year in prison.

O’Donovan, who was arrested Friday, has denied the charges as “baseless and malicious.”

It was the first arrest since President Robert Mugabe last month appointed a cybersecurity minister, a move criticized by activists as targeting social media. Zimbabwe was shaken last year by the biggest anti-government protests in a decade. Frustration is growing in the once-prosperous southern African nation as the economy collapses.


O’Donovan had been working with local social media outlet Magamba TV, which describes itself as producing “satirical comedy sensations.”

A court over the weekend dismissed her lawyer’s attempt to have the charge of subversion dropped. The lawyer argued that police had not notified O’Donovan of the charge at the time of her arrest at her home in the capital, Harare.

The group representing O’Donovan, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights says it has represented nearly 200 people charged for allegedly insulting Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, in recent years.

Mugabe, in power since 1980, is already running for reelection next year.