In Zimbabwe, law has a long road ahead

The new unity government has raised hopes that President Mugabe's regime would face justice for years of political killings, arrests and torture. But many opposition activists remain jailed.
By Robyn Dixon reporting from Banket, Zimbabwe

Alan Mutemagawu was thrilled – his mother would be happy to get the
beans. Proudly, he led them the hour’s walk to the village where she
was in hiding from Zimbabwean security agents.

The smiling couple didn’t say much. But his mother didn’t look pleased when Alan turned up with the visitors.

"She looked sad. She didn’t say goodbye. She just walked away with
them," the boy said recently at his grandmother’s house, near the
village of Banket. Neighbors found him crying after the visitors –
state security agents – took away his mother, Violet Mupfuranhehwe,
and his 2-year-old brother, Nigel. He found out later that they’d also
taken his father, Collen Mutemagawu.

Little Nigel spent 76 days in jail before being released to relatives.
After months of legal wrangling, his mother and father and some other
jailed opposition activists – including Roy Bennett, who has been
tapped to serve as deputy agriculture minister – were finally freed on
bail early this month. But they still face trial on charges of
terrorism and plotting to oust longtime President Robert Mugabe.

Since Mugabe was forced last month to join a "unity government" with
the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwean hopes for
justice over the political killings, arrests and torture by his often
ruthless regime have soared. But the MDC’s struggle to get its
activists released from prison on bail suggests that there is a long,
hard road ahead to reestablish the rule of law.

The security organs remain firmly in Mugabe’s hands, with his ZANU(PF)
party likely to block prosecutions for crimes against humanity or any
meaningful truth and reconciliation process. ZANU(PF) hard-liners and
security chiefs, many implicated in killings and abuses going back as
far as massacres in the early 1980s, bitterly oppose the unity deal.

"They’re interested in two things. One is the avoidance of any sort of
accountability. Secondly, they want to stay on the gravy train," said
Tony Reeler, director of the independent group Research and Advocacy

He says one of the most serious barriers to change is that the police
and judiciary – long used by the Mugabe regime to repress political
opponents – haven’t changed.

"To rein in the police obviously requires the executive to change
fundamentally," Reeler said. "I don’t think it’s in the interests of
ZANU(PF) to change the behavior of the police.

"The judiciary are much more complicated. There’s no easy way to get
rid of them unless you can show they’re corrupt or have committed a
crime, and that’s enormously difficult to prove."

The unity agreement calls for respect for the rule of law. But
opposition Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, aware that the issue is
sensitive enough among the security chiefs to derail the new
government, has been vague about prosecution of those guilty of major

Tsvangirai is intimately familiar with those abuses: He was arrested
and beaten by police in 2007 and has narrowly escaped assassination
several times. In 1997, security agents tried to throw him out the
window of his office in a multistory building.

Some senior MDC members favor immunity deals for the security chiefs as
the price for a peaceful transition and the move to freer elections in
two years.

Zimbabwean civic activist organizations support a truth and
reconciliation commission, which would be a lengthy and unwieldy
process because of the number of crimes. The Human Rights Forum has
recorded reports of 40,000 human rights violations since 2001, when it
started collecting the information.

Memories are raw for MDC activists who bore the brunt of political
violence last year, when security forces and militias beat, raped and
tortured thousands of Mugabe’s opponents, leaving about 180 dead. The
appetite for justice is huge.

But the healing process outlined by Tsvangirai duplicates the awkward
compromise seen in the unity government. The three ministers for
"national healing" – one from each party in the government – will
hear Zimbabweans’ complaints of abuses and decide how to respond to
each case, Tsvangirai recently told a group of businessmen.

Critics question whether victims and their families would feel safe
enough to approach the ministerial group and make accusations –
knowing that the perpetrators, often their neighbors, are at large. The
ongoing trials of activists won’t help people put fear behind them.

Roy Bennett, released this month from the Mutare prison after a month
in detention, said conditions there were appalling. "There are gross
human rights abuses behind those walls. Five people died while I was
inside, and it took the prison officers four to five days to remove the
bodies," he said.

Violet Mupfuranhehwe’s testimony about prison conditions is just as
devastating. Her lawyer, Alec Muchadehama, said that 2-year-old Nigel
saw her severely beaten in the Chikurubi maximum security prison. At
one point he started crying. Her captors shouted at him to shut up, and
hit him too, the lawyer said.

There was no medicine in prison and so little food that dozens of
inmates died late last year, prison staff members said. Decomposing
bodies were piled in the room next to the cell where Mupfuranhehwe was
being held with Nigel and five other MDC women, her lawyer said.

A Chikurubi prison employee, speaking to The Los Angeles Times on condition of
anonymity for fear of dismissal, said 250 bodies were buried in a mass
grave at the prison late last year.

The government has made no comment on the allegations of poor prison conditions by Bennett and others.

As Alan Mutemagawu sat in the sunny doorway of his grandmother’s house
remembering the day the smiling people came for his mother, his little
brother Nigel fidgeted nearby, gnawing on a cob of raw corn.

When their grandmother, Jennifer Mupfuranhehwe, playfully asked Nigel, "Where were you?" he replied matter-of-factly, "In jail."

She said her grandsons know their parents were jailed for being members
of the MDC. She sees the charges against her daughter and son-in-law as
just part of a long campaign to harass and frighten them, and said they
prove that Mugabe and ZANU(PF) are still completely in control.

"It’s clearly showing that power is not coming to the MDC," she said.

Alan didn’t care about the government and power. He just wanted his mother. "I wish she would come back," he said.

And soon his long wait was over. Violet Mupfuranhehwe came home.

Los Angeles Times

Post published in: News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *