Zimbabwe prison mirrors Holocaust scenes

Geoff Hill
prison_pic.jpgAn inmate in Zimbabwe's prison
JOHANNESBURG - Halfway through a 25-month sentence for theft, Brian Gumbo is literally rotting away - his skin peels because of malnutrition and the muscles in his legs have withered to the point where he can ba

Mr. Gumbo, thought to be in his late 20s or early 30s, is one of
several inmates videotaped through hidden cameras inside Zimbabwe’s
prisons.

The images, shared with The Washington Times, are
of gaunt prisoners with protruding ribs reminiscent of just-freed
Holocaust survivors or Muslim prisoners held by Serbian troops during
the Bosnian war.

"As an investigative journalist, I’ve seen a lot of human misery," said
Johann Abrahams, executive producer of "Hell Hole," a documentary
scheduled for broadcast Tuesday on the South African Broadcasting Corp.
(SABC).

"But when I first viewed the Zimbabwe prison tapes, it shocked me. I
was reminded of the German death camps at Dachau and Auschwitz," he
said.

Mr. Abrahams said several inmates featured in the documentary have since died.

He said his crew was able to obtain the images by working secretly with prison officers who wanted to expose the abuse.

The images compound reports of continued human rights atrocities in
Zimbabwe, despite a recent power-sharing deal between President Robert
Mugabe and the opposition, and are likely to increase pressure for
tougher measures against the southern African nation.

The United States already has personal sanctions in place against Mr.
Mugabe and more than 200 of his closest advisers, including Prison
Services Chief Paradzai Zimondi.

In one scene, the camera follows Mr. Gumbo as he shuffles from his cell
to a hall, where he is given his daily meal: one bowl of corn porridge.

Like many prisoners, he suffers from pellagra caused by a lack of
protein and niacin, one of the B vitamins. Left untreated, the
deficiency leads to a loss of teeth, skin lesions, blindness and,
ultimately, death.

Joseph Musonza, who now lives as a refugee in South Africa, was
released from prison shortly before Christmas. He said that while it
was rare for prisoners to be beaten or physically abused by guards,
many died of neglect.

"It is hard to tell people my story because they accuse me of lying or exaggerating," he told The Times.
"In remand, before I was sentenced, I lived with 19 people in a cell
built for maybe six. Nearly every night, someone died and it can be
days before the bodies are [taken] away. In summer, there would be
maggots in the man’s flesh and he is still lying next to you."

Mr. Musonza served one year for assault, but he said the charge was
political. He said people often were convicted because they belonged to
the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which is now in a coalition
government with Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic
Front (ZANU(PF)).

"When MDC was the opposition, if you were too active in the party,
police would say you tried to assault them and they would lock you up
and bring in ZANU(PF) supporters to witness against you," he said.
"They use the fear of jail to silence those who speak out. People know
that once you are inside, no one in the system cares if you live or
die."

U.N. agencies estimate that up to three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s 12 million people are malnourished and dependent on food aid.

Critics blame bad governance and a land-redistribution program that
began in 1999 and has left a majority of farms idle. Until 2001,
Zimbabwe was a net exporter of food.

Mr. Musonza said food was delivered to the prison, only to be sold by
guards. "There is not much to eat, but any meat or vegetables will be
grabbed by the [guards] and taken for their families, or sold outside
the jail. Inside, you get one cup of sadza [corn porridge] or sometimes
a thick slice of bread."

Cells, he said, were plagued with fleas and there were frequent
outbreaks of dysentery. "Older prisoners used to speak of the days when
there were rats, but they have all been eaten."

Efforts to obtain comment from either Mr. Zimondi or Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa for this report were unsuccessful.

In Johannesburg on Sunday, the lobby group Zimbabwe Democracy Now (ZDN)
called for the resignation of the prison chief and suggested that he
could be tried for crimes against humanity.

ZDN acting spokeswoman Ethel Moyo said the images from the documentary showed that "a crime is taking place inside the jails."

"These people are days away from death, having been starved and abused.
It is cases like these for which the International Criminal Court was
set up at The Hague," she said.

On Thursday, the State Department called for the release of all
political prisoners in Zimbabwe and said the United States would not
engage the government until there was "respect for human rights and
personal security, and full access to humanitarian assistance."

Presidents Obama and George W. Bush have urged rapid progress toward
free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, where Mr. Mugabe has ruled since
1980.

Mr. Abrahams’ documentary is to air Tuesday night on "Special
Assignment," a weekly television news feature of the South African
Broadcasting Corp.

The Washington Times

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