US says Mugabe ?immune? to lawsuit

PRESIDENT George W Bush’s administration has moved to protect Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe from a civil suit in the United States accusing him of ordering murder, torture and terrorism to intimidate political opponents.

The administration said Mugabe, in power for nearly 21 years, was entitled to immunity as a head of state and cited the principle of reciprocity if it is to assert immunity for US leaders abroad.

A key player in the many-sided conflict in Congo, Africa’s biggest war, Mugabe also should be immune because he was visiting the United Nations at the time he was served with court papers in the suit, the State Department said in a brief filed last week.

The US filing on Mugabe’s behalf should not be interpreted as reflecting any change in US human rights policy with regard to Zimbabwe, a State Department official said.

The plaintiffs, all Zimbabwe citizens, include relatives of three people slain and a political opponent who claimed she was beaten. Mugabe was served while in New York to attend a UN summit marking the Millennium rollover in September 1999.

The suit seeks no less than $68.5m in compensatory and punitive damages, lawyers for the plaintiffs said. It was brought under the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1992, which allows foreign citizens to sue foreign authorities over human rights issues in US courts.

The Bush administration also urged the court to grant diplomatic immunity to Foreign Minister Stanislaus Mudenge, who likewise was served with court papers during the UN summit, the State Department official said.

Mudenge is chairman of the so-called Political Committee, consisting of the signers and observers of a 1999 Congo cease-fire accord reached in the Zambian capital Lusaka that serves as the framework for the latest peace drive.

Theodore Cooperstein, a Washington lawyer representing the five plaintiffs and the estates of the deceased, said the State Department had no standing in the case. “All my clients want is basic justice which they can get nowhere else but in the US federal courts,” he said. - Reuters

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