HARARE – The High Court ruled on Monday that State Security Minister Owen Ncube had no authority to order mobile phone operators to shut down internet access to customers during protests last week and that the firms should immediately restore unrestricted access.

Justice Owen Tagu made the ruling as legal challenges began to a brutal clampdown on dissent by the government. Fears the country is veering back towards authoritarian rule have driven some leaders of the MDC into hiding.

“It has become very clear that the minister has no authority to make the directive,” Tagu said in his ruling, ordering mobile operators to “unconditionally resume the provision of full and unrestricted services to all subscribers forthwith”.

The judge however did not rule on the constitutionality of the Interception of Communications Act.

Critics had accused President Emmeson Mnangagwa’s government of shutting off the internet to prevent evidence of its heavy-handedness being broadcast to the world.