The decision by Zimbabwe’s chief prosecutor not to defend key figures in President Robert Mugabe’s security apparatus accused of abducting activist Jestina Mukoko has buoyed activists — but provoked anxiety among Mugabe’s top lieutenants.
Human rights campaigners hope that making individuals accountable for their actions will strengthen efforts to reform the security services, long accused of being instruments of oppression.
Mukoko is suing security ministers and their senior officials for her abduction last year. This followed a Supreme Court decision to free her on charges of banditry, on grounds that her rights were violated when she was seized from her home last December and held in secret locations for months.
Her supporters believe she was targeted for recording the accounts of hundreds of victims of violence during last year’s election.
Mukoko has filed for damages against Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, Home Affairs co-Ministers Kembo Mohadi and Giles Mutsekwa (of the Movement for Democratic Change), police commissioner Augustine Chihuri, Brigadier General Asher Tapfumaneyi of the secret service, Attorney General Johannes Tomana and former state security minister Didymus Mutasa.
But Tomana has told the high court he will not represent any of the alleged abductors.
His surprise decision is seen as setting a precedent that threatens many government officials who played a role in last year’s abuses. It could trigger a spate of similar applications by other victims.
However, the decision will be a relief for Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. His officials point out that the MDC pressed state lawyers not to defend the alleged abductors, as this would have meant the party was defending those accused of rights abuses. The MDC has joint control of the home affairs ministry, which oversees the police.
Tsvangirai’s supporters are growing impatient with the slow pace of reform under the unity government and he is under pressure to replace the party’s man in home affairs, Giles Mutsekwa. Under Mutsekwa’s watch, several MDC MPs have been arrested on what the party claims are charges fabricated to whittle down its slender Parliament majority. Besieged farmers seeking police protection are routinely told police do not attend to “land issues”.
Last week Mutsekwa appeared frustrated and powerless when police fired on striking miners. He said: “We have told the police repeatedly that they should refrain from using firearms against defenceless people.”
However, he courted controversy this week by praising the conduct of the police and appearing to repeat Zanu-PF’s mantra on sanctions. The Zimbabwe Republic Police had “steadfastly maintained its integrity in the ferocity of machinations of the detractors determined to collapse the country”, he said.
Senior police officer Peter Magwenzi, in court papers for the Mukoko hearings, denied any police involvement. “They [the abducted activists] were handed to me by the security agents when they were in protective custody and I went and dropped them at their residences.” He could not name the agents, saying State Security Minister Sydney Sekeramayi had issued a “certificate” gagging the police.
But in his affidavit Sekeramayi also denied his agents were involved in abductions and, therefore, could not identify them.
While Mukoko’s freedom has been celebrated by rights groups, seven activists abducted last year remain missing, according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.