Opinion: Zimbabwe's jailing of doctors is an outrage

BOSTON — The jailing in Zimbabwe of four American doctors and nurses for providing life-saving anti-AIDS drugs without proper licensing is the latest outrage in Zimbabwe, a galling example of President Robert Mugabe’s refusal to relax his grip on the country, no matter what the cost.

Zimbabwe has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV/AIDS with 15 percent of the adult population infected and the Mugabe government has been unable to provide adequate supplies of the antiretroviral drugs that allow patients to live. The government has only been able to supply the drugs to about half of the 1.3 million Zimbabweans suffering from the disease. As a result, Zimbabwe’s AIDS death rate is one of the world’s highest.

One would think that a team of American medics providing ARV drugs to poor Zimbabweans, many of them rural orphans, would be welcomed and encouraged. Wrong. The Mugabe government threw them in jail and pressed charges against them that their lawyer says are without foundation.

The doctors and nurses of the Allen Temple Baptist Church AIDS Ministry have come to Zimbabwe several times a year for 10 years and have treated poor AIDS patients and provided them with ARV drugs. They say they have always worked with doctors fully registered in Zimbabwe and have never experienced any problems before. After spending several days in Zimbabwe's overcrowded and filthy jails, they were released on bail and are due to stand trial on Sept. 27.

The Americans are members of the Allen Temple church, one of Oakland's largest and most socially active congregations. Several times a year since 2000, members have paid their own way to Zimbabwe to give antiretroviral medicine, vitamins, clothing and food baskets to impoverished people with AIDS.

"We are people of African descent and we feel a special connection and responsibility to serve people on the continent of Africa, that's why we're there, but we also want to make sure we respect the people of Zimbabwe and their government," said Theophous Reagans, Allen Temple's Minister of Global Missions. He said the ministry will strive to clarify whatever confusion led to these arrests so that future missions can continue unhindered.

Zimbabweans are not so diplomatic when they speak about this incident.

“Those Americans are experiencing the same treatment that ordinary Zimbabweans get every day,” a Zimbabwean academic told GlobalPost. “The Mugabe regime is totalitarian and believes it must control all aspects of life in Zimbabwe. The Americans helped where the Mugabe government had failed, thinking their efforts would be appreciated. But the Mugabe regime does not like to admit that it has any shortcomings, so it will stop their work even if it means that hundreds of young orphans will go without drugs.”

The arrests have been accompanied by front-page stories in the state media that have attempted to whip up anti-American sentiment.

“This campaign has failed. Zimbabweans know how difficult it is to get anti-AIDS drugs and how badly people need them,” the former professor said.

If this were an isolated incident, perhaps it could be chalked up to a bureaucratic snafu. But it is not, the government has a cumbersome procedure for the registration of medical personnel, that is open to political meddling.

Two years ago when cholera swept the country and Zimbabweans were dying by the hundreds, the Mugabe government, using the same medical registration regulations, prevented Medecins sans Frontieres and other reputable international groups from setting up emergency clinics to save lives.

The Mugabe government has shown the same willful control in other areas, too. The South African pop group Freshlyground recently released a humorous and satirical song and video in which Mugabe, 86, is compared to a chicken and is encouraged to leave office.

The Mugabe government, swiftly and without any sense of humor, banned Freshlyground from performing in Zimbabwe.

Opposition lawmaker Douglas Mwonzora has been charged with calling Mugabe a goblin. Mwonzora, a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe who is helping to draft a new constitution for Zimbabwe, allegedly made the remark about Mugabe more than a year ago at a political rally. Several Zimbabweans have gone to jail for insulting Mugabe.

These are not the actions of a benign government that embraces democracy and different points of view. These are not the actions of a government that accepts it cannot and should not control all aspects of life in Zimbabwe. These are not the actions of a government that has joined a power-sharing government in good faith and has moderated its draconian policies.

The Mugabe regime does not regard as legitimate any actions or points of view independent from its political vehicle, Zanu-Patriotic Front. With the Harare government brazenly demonstrating its instransigence, why is anyone surprised that American and European legislators are reluctant to lift the limited sanctions on Zimbabwe? Faced with such bullying tactics, and knowing the Mugabe government’s propensity for violence, those hoping for any semblance of free and fair elections in 2011 should beware.