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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.

March 29, 2009|Robyn Dixon

BANKET, ZIMBABWE — The man and woman who came to the 5-year-old boy's house in October were friendly and smiled a lot. They carried a bag of dried beans and asked where his mother was.

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 Unit.

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 abuses.

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.

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