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Obama denounces Mugabe's rule

Women of Zimbabwe get Kennedy human rights award from US president.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award to Magodonga Mahlangu of Zimbabwe and her organization Women of Zimbabwe Arise in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Nov. 23, 2009. Partially obscured in the photo is Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

BOSTON — President Barack Obama denounced President Robert Mugabe as a "dictator" and said the 85-year-old leader is on the wrong side of history. The U.S. president made the comments when he gave a human rights award to a group of Zimbabwean women activists Monday.

Obama praised the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) for leading more than 100 street demonstrations to protest the Mugabe regime and to demand a return to democracy. WOZA's leaders, Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, have each been jailed more than 30 times, beaten and spent weeks in Zimbabwe's cells.

"Each time they see Magodonga beaten back, beaten black and blue during one protest, only to get right back up and lead another, singing freedom songs at the top of her lungs in full view of security forces, the threat of a policeman's baton loses some of its power," said Obama.

"By her example, Magadonga and the women of WOZA have shown the people of Zimbawe that they can undermine their oppressors' power, that they can sap a dictator's strength with their own," said Obama.

Although the Mugabe regime bans public demonstrations WOZA has led numerous protests. On Mother's Day and Valentine's Day the WOZA women have been beaten with batons and arrested for attempting to hand out roses and messages of peace.  

“History has a clear direction and it is not the way of those who arrest women and babies for singing in the streets,” said Obama. “It is not the way of those who starve and silence their own people, who cling to power by the threat of force.”

Obama also denounced Mugabe's past human rights abuses. He noted that Mahlangu, as a young girl in the 1980s, witnessed the Matabeleland massacres, which Obama described as “the systematic murder of many thousands of people, including her uncle and several cousins, many of whom were buried in mass graves they’d been forced to dig themselves.”

Though part of a power-sharing government since February, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have continued to use state security forces to arrest and jail rival politicians and party workers, human rights lawyers and civic leaders.

Neighboring heads of state, worried that the power-sharing government led by Mugabe and his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, will crumble, have insisted the men settle their differences in the coming weeks, but so far Mugabe has been adamant that he will continue to rule as he sees fit.

The United States has limited political leverage in southern Africa, but Obama has repeatedly spoken out about Mugabe’s misrule — notably when he welcomed Tsvangirai to the White House in June, when he addressed the Ghanaian Parliament in July.

At the ceremony in the East Room Monday, the WOZA women were awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.