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Holding Zimbabwe hostage

Analysis: Mugabe is continuing to order spurious arrests of opposition leaders.

HARARE — Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has often been accused of holding his country hostage. But the charge has been seen more as part of the country’s overheated rhetoric than any particular reality.

Now, however, there is mounting evidence of a pattern of arrests that suggests he is indeed taking hostages against the day when he is called to account for human rights violations.

There have been a number of  abductions, arbitrary arrests and spurious charges lodged against Zimbabweans. The victims have invariably been members of the Movement for Democratic Change, now part of a coalition government under Mugabe.

The suspicion is that Mugabe officials are tying up their government partners in legal red tape against the day when Zanu-PF officials are brought before a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Mugabe will trade the charges for amnesty,” said a civic lawyer, who asked not to be named. “That explains the ongoing role of the police who have clearly exceeded their public remit.”

The problem stems from unresolved business in the various deals negotiated by Mugabe with MDC leaders Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara in the lead-up to the government of national unity. At their final negotiating session in Pretoria, South Africa, in February, the three leaders agreed that last-minute appointments by Mugabe, such as those of Reserve Bank governor, provincial governors and the attorney-general, would be reviewed by the parties immediately upon their return to Harare.

After the new power-sharing government was created, however, Mugabe refused to reverse his appointments and declared that Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono and attorney-general Johannes Tomana were “not going anywhere.” Both have proved to be loyal and useful adherents to Mugabe.

The MDC’s inability to shift Tomana, who has publicly declared his loyalty to Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, has proved particularly costly. He has ordered the arrest and prosecution of commercial farmers remaining on their farms, and in particular he has targeted those who sought relief from a regional tribunal in Namibia set up to hear appeals from member states. That regional court ruled the farmers have the right to stay on their land and said the government should stop trying to evict them. Mugabe has declared the tribunal ruling in favor of the farmers “nonsense.”

But Tomana’s sinister role extends beyond the farmers. He has presided over the arrests of MDC officials, including those whose release was agreed in Pretoria. The best-known of these is Roy Bennett, who was arrested and held for a month on charges of plotting insurrection in 2006.

Bennett is slated to become deputy agriculture minister in the coalition government. But Mugabe won’t swear him into office claiming that Bennett is facing “serious charges.”

The same charges were dismissed by a Zimbabwean court three years ago when they were brought against another MDC official. And Mugabe does not have a veto over MDC nominations for office, whatever he may think.

Other prominent members of the MDC facing charges include Constitutional Affairs Minister Eric Matinenga, who is accused of fomenting political violence. Less prominent but nonetheless shocking was the arrest and incarceration on similar charges of 13 MDC activists in Mashonaland West, including a two-year-old child. They are currently out on bail.