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HARARE, Zimbabwe – An American woman charged with subversion in Zimbabwe for allegedly insulting the country’s president will remain in police custody this weekend after making her first court appearance Saturday.
Martha O’Donovan, 25, a graduate of New York University, has been accused of calling President Robert Mugabe, 93, a “sick man” in a Twitter post that included a photo illustration of Mugabe with a catheter. O’Donovan denied the allegations she called “baseless and malicious.”
O’Donovan’s lawyer, Rose Hanzi, told the court that a subversion charge was illegal because police did not inform the woman of it when she was taken from her home in the capital, Harare, on Friday morning.
The court disagreed and ruled that O’Donovan will remain in custody over the weekend. Hanzi said on Monday they will approach the High Court for bail.
The Associated Press reported O’Donovan made no statement in court and showed no emotion as the request was dismissed. She waved to a small crowd of supporters as she was escorted into a prison truck.
O’Donovan had been working with a local social media outlet Magamba TV, which described itself as producing “satirical comedy sensations.” She called herself a manager for Magamba TV and a “media activist.”
Earlier this year, she presented a talk at a re:publica digital culture conference on "How Zimbabweans Rebel Online."
O’Donovan’s arrest was the first since Mugabe appointed a cybersecurity minister last month. 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 and the president, in power for more than 35 years, is already running for next year's elections.
Mugabe’s wife Grace was rumored to take over the presidency after the president, who has been rumored to be in declining health, resigns or dies. The first lady was not well-liked among the country’s citizens due to her lavish spending and fear of being criticized, The Guardian reported.
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.
"This arrest marks the start of a sinister new chapter in the Zimbabwean government's clampdown on freedom of speech, and the new battleground is social media," said Amnesty International's deputy regional director, Muleya Mwananyanda. The statement said Zimbabwe authorities tracked tweets to O'Donovan's IP address.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.