/ 2 April 2009

Documentary shows emaciated Zimbabwe prisoners

New released images that provide a rare look inside a Zimbabwean prison show emaciated inmates too weak to stand and eating as if they can barely bring food to their mouths.

Human rights activists and former prisoners have spoken of horrifying conditions in the country’s jails and prisons but there has been little firsthand evidence available.

Producer Godknows Nare spent four months on the behind-the-walls documentary, training insiders to capture the footage. His work, Hell Hole, aired on Tuesday on the South African Broadcasting Corporation, and was being syndicated internationally by Associated Press Television News on Wednesday. Nare said he hoped the footage would persuade Zimbabwe’s new coalition government and the international community to step in to help.

”Just hearsay, without visual proof, is not enough to change people’s minds,” he said.

Attempts to reach the Zimbabwe Cabinet minister in charge of prisons on Wednesday were not immediately successful.

In one scene from Hell Hole, a man stands shirtless in a prison yard, his ribs and pelvic bone shockingly prominent until he pulls on a ragged T-shirt.

In other scenes, emaciated prisoners, wasting away because of vitamin deficiencies, according to SABC, are shown on mats in cells furnished with only blankets and the thin mattresses. Nare said prison menus have been reduced to daily bowls of corn porridge, which the inmates are shown eating slowly, as if they barely have the energy to bring the food to their mouths.

The Associated Press could not independently determine if the prisoners’ ailments were caused by the jail conditions or by an illness or malnutrition they were suffering before being incarcerated.

Annah Moyo, a Zimbabwean lawyer who works with the Southern African Centre for Survivors of Torture, said conditions in Zimbabwean prisons were ”a form of torture”.

Moyo, who was not involved in making the documentary, said Zimbabwe’s soaring inflation and shortages of basic goods have made it difficult to supply prisons. But she said corruption also played a role, with prison officials taking food that should go to prisoners and selling it on the black market.

And she said there was a political aspect, with security officials making sure political activists know of the prison conditions.

”Everyone knows that if you’re sent to prison, your chances of coming out alive are slim,” Moyo said in an interview on Tuesday. ”It’s quite a complex situation. You cannot classify it as only economic or political.”

Lack of medical care in jails and prisons also has been an issue, with concern that cholera, at epidemic levels among free Zimbabweans, would take an even higher toll in crowded cells.

Last year, the Zimbabwean civic group Women of Zimbabwe Arise dedicated a report on the collapse of the country’s health system to one of its leaders, Thembelani Lunga. The group said she died after being jailed for four days in Bulawayo Central Police Station, where she was denied access to HIV/Aids medication.

Earlier this month, Roy Bennett, a former opposition politician who is now part of the unity government, spoke about harsh jail conditions he endured for a month before being granted bail in an arms case. He said prisoners survive on one meal a day and are given salty water.

Bennett, noticeably thinner after his jailing, told reporters five people died during his incarceration and it took authorities 24 to 48 hours to collect the bodies.

Bennett’s Movement for Democratic Change joined longtime President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in a unity government in February.

The arms accusations against Bennett, which his party says are trumped up for political reasons, are evidence of the difficulties the new governing partners will have putting political tension and violence behind them and turning their energies to rebuilding the country. – Sapa-AP