Mr. Mugabe’s generals and politicians have organized campaigns of terror for
decades to keep him and his party in power. But now that the opposition has
a place in the nation’s new government, these strongmen worry that they are
suddenly vulnerable to prosecution, especially for crimes committed during
last year’s election campaign as the world watched.
"Their faces were immediately pasted on the wall for everyone to see that
they were behind the killing, the violence, the torture and intimidation,"
said a senior official in Mr. Mugabe’s party, ZANU(PF), who, like others in
the party, spoke anonymously because he was describing its criminal history.
To protect themselves, some of Mr. Mugabe’s lieutenants are trying to
implicate opposition officials in a supposed plot to overthrow the
president, hoping to use it as leverage in any amnesty talks or to press the
opposition into quitting the government altogether, ruling party officials
Like South Africa at the end of apartheid or Liberia at the close of Charles
Taylor’s reign, Zimbabwe is in the midst of a treacherous passage from
authoritarian rule to an uncertain future. After a bloody election season
last year stained by the state-sponsored beatings and killings of opposition
supporters, Mr. Mugabe and his rivals in the Movement for Democratic Change
agreed to a power-sharing government that includes both victimizers and
But Mr. Mugabe’s lieutenants, part of an inner circle called the Joint
Operations Command, know that their 85-year-old leader may not be around
much longer to shield them, and fear losing not just their power and
ill-gotten wealth, but their freedom, officials in the party said.
Their fixation on getting amnesty was described by four senior ruling party
officials, all Mugabe confidants, who spoke to a Zimbabwean journalist
working for The New York Times. But some opposition officials say Mr. Mugabe’s
loyalists are less interested in reaching a deal than in simply forcing them
out of the new government through violence and intimidation. Others suspect
a push for amnesty is being sought by a broad contingent of Mr. Mugabe’s
party worried about accounting for the past.
Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, one of Mr. Mugabe’s principal
negotiators in the power-sharing talks, informally told opposition officials
around the time that the transitional government took office in February
that his party wanted an amnesty, according to a senior ZANU(PF) official
close to the talks.
"We wanted to find out if it would be possible to have amnesty dating back
to 1980s," the official said. "The M.D.C. did not sound very forthcoming."
Indeed, the opposition has so far offered no such assurances.
"I’d rather rot in hell than agree to anything like that," said Roy Bennett,
the opposition’s third-highest ranking official. He was recently released on
bail after being held for almost a month on terrorism charges based on
testimony from a man whose doctor and lawyer say was tortured and forced
into giving a false confession.
Didymus Mutasa, who served as Mr. Mugabe’s minister for national security
until the power-sharing deal went into effect, acknowledged that some senior
officials in his party may be worried about prosecution.
Had the party floated the idea of an amnesty? he was asked. "Perhaps," he
Were abductions used to gain leverage for amnesty? "There could have been
something like that," he said, "but how am I to know?"
Still, he argued, pressing charges against senior ZANU(PF) officials would be
counterproductive. "It’s madness to try to go back into matters of history,"
said Mr. Mutasa, the party’s secretary for administration.
The crimes committed to entrench Mr. Mugabe’s rule date back to the 1980s,
when thousands of civilians from Zimbabwe’s Ndebele minority in Matabeleland
were killed by the notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Army brigade,
according to historians.
Among the Ndebele, the tears of the living must be shed to release the souls
of the dead. But the Fifth Brigade insisted that there be no mourning for
those they killed, and in some cases shot family members because they wept,
according to "Breaking the Silence," a 1997 investigation based on the
testimonies of more than 1,000 witnesses.
Other political crimes include widespread attacks on the opposition in 2000,
2002 and 2005, and most gruesomely last year. Beyond that, a vast 2005 slum
clearance effort known as Operation Murambatsvina, or Get Rid of the Filth,
drove 700,000 people in opposition bastions from their homes.
Last year, close to 200 people were killed, mostly before the June
presidential runoff between Mr. Mugabe and the opposition leader, Morgan
Tsvangirai, and thousands were tortured in state-sponsored attacks, but so
far no one has been prosecuted, according to a State Department human rights
report released in February.
Mr. Mugabe’s party fears that even more damning evidence will be unearthed.
For the first time since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the opposition has
a majority in Parliament that can investigate corruption and political
"There are more explosive issues that are not in the public domain, cases
that have not been reported but still have a serious impact on the future of
some of the officials who were in the previous government," said a senior
Last year, as it did in the 1980s, Mr. Mugabe’s loyalists cut off food aid
to hungry areas, blocked access to foreign journalists, sent party youth
brigades to terrorize the countryside, charged their rivals with treason and
used abduction, torture, arson and killings to silence critics.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, the minister who oversaw the intelligence agency in the
1980s, ran Mr. Mugabe’s warlike election campaign last year and is now
defense minister. Perence Shiri, who commanded the Fifth Brigade in
Matabeleland, is now air force commander. Both are among the Joint
Operations Command’s 11 members, who have advised Mr. Mugabe, the man at the
"The Matabeleland issue can be blamed on the government as a broader
entity," said a senior ZANU-PF official. "But the post-March 29 violence
and killings can be pinned down to only 12 people."
Mr. Mugabe’s men realized they would not succeed in getting the opposition
to voluntarily give them an amnesty because, as one ZANU(PF) official put it,
"unlike ZANU(PF) they have very little to worry about in terms of crimes."
One ruling party official, who speaks regularly with Mr. Mugabe’s top
commanders, said that his party needed opposition prisoners to trade for
amnesty. A second official, who attended meetings of Mr. Mugabe’s inner
circle, said Air Marshal Shiri suggested jailing as many top opposition
figures as possible.
A third official, who has regular discussions with the top lieutenants, said
the most powerful players in the party, except for Mr. Mugabe, would prefer
the power-sharing government to fail and have sought to keep opposition
officials imprisoned in hopes Mr. Tsvangirai will pull out. The officials
said they agreed to be interviewed because they felt the amnesty issue
needed to be faced, or because they perceived themselves as safe from
prosecution and possibly benefiting from the downfall of some in the inner
The recent abductions of dozens of opposition and human rights activists
began in October. Many were held for weeks or months in hidden locations.
Most were eventually produced in court and many have provided sworn
accounts, corroborated by doctors, of being tortured to elicit confessions
that they were recruiting militants to overthrow Mr. Mugabe or were involved
in bombing plots.
Chris Dhlamini, the opposition’s director of security, was hung upside down
from a tree and dropped on his head, as well as submerged in water until he
believed he would drown. His interrogators tried to get him to implicate Mr.
Tsvangirai, he said.
Fidelis Charamba, a 73-year-old local opposition official, said he was
pushed into a deep freezer and had boiling water poured over his genitals.
For months, Mr. Tsvangirai refused to join the government, insisting on the
release of his people. Finally, though they remained jailed, he relented
under pressure from southern African leaders. On Feb. 11, Mr. Mugabe swore
him in as prime minister.
The arrest of Mr. Bennett, Mr. Tsvangirai’s nominee for deputy agriculture
minister, just two days later cast a pall over the new government and
prompted Mr. Tsvangirai and others to say that elements in the ruling party
were trying to sabotage the deal.
"The hard-liners still filled with hate and vengeance want to use me to
achieve one of two things: to broker a deal for amnesty or to get the M.D.C.
to walk away from the agreement," Mr. Bennett said.
In the weeks after Mr. Bennett’s arrest, the opposition pleaded for the
release of its jailed activists and officials, describing them as "political
hostages." But seven abductees are still missing, and three remain in
custody. Those out on bail face charges that could bring life sentences.
Tensions rose after Mr. Tsvangirai’s wife, Susan, was killed and he was
injured in a March 6 car crash that many of his supporters believe was an
assassination attempt. Though Mr. Tsvangirai has called it an accident, his
party is conducting its own investigation.
For days afterward, thousands of mourners gathered at the Tsvangirais’ home
in Harare. In the glow of lights strung across the yard, to the driving beat
of drums, party workers swirled in circles, stamping their feet and
chanting, "Robert Mugabe killed Susan Tsvangirai," and "Tsvangirai beware!
ZANU(PF) will finish all M.D.C."
Their fear was as palpable as their rage. Approached for interviews, their
eyes darted around as they searched for ruling party spies and begged not to
be quoted by name.
"They will kill us," one woman said. "They are everywhere."
A journalist in Zimbabwe contributed reporting.
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