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.
The police have made use of a raft of repressive measures in recent years, most notably the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act which contains clauses outlawing any statement that might reflect adversely on Mugabe. Mutambara faces charges under the same law for an opinion piece he wrote for an independent newspaper last year.
The police have also proved zealous in other matters such as arresting two farmers who filmed, at the request of the MDC, the crash site where Tsvangirai’s wife was killed. Their offense was that they arrived before the police.
Some of those accused of planning acts of sabotage or undergoing militia training in Botswana have been granted bail but become victims of a clause that permits the state to prevent their release pending its appeal against bail. Kisimusi Dhlamini, journalist Andrison Manyere and Tsvangirai aide Gandhi Mudzingwa are currently being held by the authorities.
Botswana has rejected any suggestion that it afforded them training, and Amnesty International’s Simeon Mawanza says the charges they face are widely believed to be fabricated.
Even those released have the threat of prosecution hanging over them as the state reserves its right to bring a prosecution by way of summons. Amnesty International last week accused African leaders of a “hands-off attitude” to Zimbabwe.
“They have chosen to look the other way, the human rights watchdog said. “Such action is helping to strengthen the hand of those who fear that the success of this government will lead to their being held accountable for past human rights violations.”
U.S. ambassador James McGee said over the Easter holiday period that those behind last year’s election-related human rights abuses should face trial.
“They must be brought before the courts of law and tried to allow for the nation to move forward,” he said.
The U.S. has said there will be no financial aid to Zimbabwe until there is evidence of a restoration of the rule of law.
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