/ 13 December 2008

New modes of terror

A series of abductions of anti-government figures has left Zimbabwean rights activists terrified, as fears rise that President Robert Mugabe will use last week’s military indiscipline to crack down harder on opponents.

Many activists have been taking extraordinary security measures. The head of one human rights organisation described how she has abandoned her home, moved her family to a new location and now works away from her office, following the abduction last week of Jestina Mukoko, the rights activist who has been missing since then.

The Harare High Court has ordered police to launch a search for Mukoko. Her lawyers have demanded that military and intelligence premises be searched, but the police say they are not allowed access to properties used by either the military or the Central Intelligence Organisation.

Mukoko’s family has been holding a vigil at her home west of Harare since her abduction.

“This is a difficult time for the family,” her brother, Simon, said. “We are especially worried about her health. They didn’t allow her to take her medication with her, any decent clothing or her glasses.”

Close to 20 activists have been abducted in the past four weeks and their whereabouts remain unknown. Fourteen Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) activists are being held at an undisclosed location on charges of receiving military training in Botswana to overthrow the government. Among them is the two-year-old baby of one of the detained.

Now activists believe Mugabe plans to use growing international threats against his rule as a pretext to clamp down on opponents.

This week two more members of Mukoko’s Zimbabwe Peace Project, Broderick Takawira and Pascal Gonzo, were abducted. The organisation was key in the documentation of violence in the run-up to the June run-off election, which was boycotted by the opposition. The reports recorded evidence of the violence, frequently in the form of graphic images of battered victims and their grim accounts of torture.

Also abducted this week was Gandhi Mudzingwa, a former security aide to MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Last Friday the brother of Harrison Nkomo, a lawyer who has represented activists and independent journalists, was seized from his home in Masvingo at dawn.

Lawyers for the MDC also reported this week that a member of Tsvangirai’s security detail, Chris Dlamini, had been abducted and was still missing after two weeks. Alec Muchadahama, an MDC lawyer, said: “We do not know where he and any of the other missing people are or if they are still alive.”

The MDC has sent an appeal to the Southern African Development Community and the African Union to protest against what it says is an escalation of state terror, describing the abductions as part of “a systematic plot to decimate the party structures, the leadership and civil rights groups involved in compiling dossiers of violence and human rights abuses”.

Beatrice Mtetwa, a lawyer for Mukoko, suspects the secret service is involved in the abductions. Mtetwa asked the court to order the police “to uphold the law by investigating forthwith [Mukuko’s] whereabouts with the assistance of the lawyers, who are in a position to point out well-known abduction and torture chambers used by state agents”.

In spite of the abductions there were suggestions this week that the talks between Zimbawbe’s main parties were making some progress. Sydney Mufumadi, Thabo Mbeki’s lead mediator, held meetings throughout the week with negotiators from both sides. An opposition official told the Mail & Guardian that the Constitutional Amendment Bill required for the formation of the new government was now complete and would be published officially “within days”. Parliament will sit next Tuesday, but other constitutional requirements mean the amendment can reach the legislature in only 30 days.

In the interim tensions are building. Western threats against Mugabe, backed by Tsvangirai’s allies, such as Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and the outspoken Botswanan government, have turned up the heat. Many fear Mugabe will lash out against domestic critics under the guise of protecting the country from an impending foreign intervention.

“It’s going to get worse,” said Welshman Ncube, secretary general of one faction of the MDC. “It is in their nature. Killings, abductions and arrests are how they conduct political struggle.”