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Chris Dhlamini et Gandhi Mudzingwa. (Ph.MF)

Zimbabwe strives to recover rule of law

At the height of Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic in December 2008, fatalities inundated the columns of newspapers, pushing into the background her ongoing and much publicized civilian struggles. Since the World Health Organization reported the near end of the epidemic, the attention of the world has been slow to return to the failures of the justice system. The promise and the hopes buoyed six months ago by the unveiling of the unity government has masked the violations perpetrated by an aged dictator and his long established clique.

Thirty human rights defenders, journalists and political militants are assembled in Room Number 4 of the Harare Magistrate court. They are sitting silently and uneasily on crumbling benches. It is May and the air is
dry and hot. The friable parquet floor shifts under their trembling feet, the airways in the walls feed the room with a strong smell of urine. A few of the defendants stare out of the grimy windows fielding the first rays of
morning light. They are all accused, without evidence, of terrorist activities - of trying to overthrow the regime of one man, the hardliner Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. Intimidated, abducted, tortured then released, they are now victims of a failed justice system, at the mercy of allegations and misinformation provided by secret agents eager to silence them.

Defendant Fidelis Chiramba, 72, is attending the hearings. He is still wondering why he was abducted one night in November 2008. “ Plain clothes CIO agents (Central Intelligence Organisation) broke into my house. They tied me up, blindfolded me and threw me into the back of a truck.” For several weeks, Fidelis suffered torture and mind games. “They locked me in a cell and kept throwing boiling water over my body. I was
covered with blisters. Then they locked me in a cold storage.” Fidelis remains accused of recruiting people for military training in Botswana to topple Mugabe’s regime. His eyes are bloated with age but his voice is
clear and confident: “ Do I look like a terrorist? I did nothing wrong. Nothing!”

Like the majority of defendants, Fidelis was tracked down for his affiliations to the MDC. He organized political gatherings in Zvimba-South District (Mashonaland West province). There, he talked about
democracy. The power-sharing pact signed in September 2008 between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Tsvangirai’s MDC promised to legalise MDC gatherings. Tsvangirai accepted to enter the unity governement
on condition that the principles of the pact were respected. Between October 2008 and February 2009, more than 40 Zimbabweans were abducted. When the Unity Government took office, 32 abductees were bailed out of Harare Prison. They are now being tried for treason and terrorism in the Court. Lawyers of the accused are demanding all charges be dropped, and they are taking the violations suffered in custody to the
Supreme Court.

Beatrice Mtetwa, defence lawyer for the 32 accused, takes the floor: “ These people cannot be tried. They should not even be appearing before you. Their arrests and detention were unlawful. The persons were
admittedly kidnapped. The Minister [Didymus Mutasa, State security minister] even said: “Yes my guys [secret service agents] did this but we cannot disclose their names. Furthermore, no evidence against the
accused has yet been officially provided by the State. You don't constitute a trial before the initial procedure. This is a clear violation. ”
Judge Chimanda takes note of all declarations – the unpaid clerks have deserted the Zimbabweans tribunal a long time ago. The state prosecutor mumbles a few excuses. During the last hearings, he blamed his
broken copier machine for not being able to provide the judge with the list of charges.
The session is postponed.

Gandhi Mudzingwa and Chris Dhlamini were not able to go to the tribunal. Mudzingwa is Tsvangirai’s personal aid, Dhlamini his Security Chief. After several months of abuse, they were granted medical assistance in one of the rare clinics of Harare that are still functionning. Yet, their release became another form of alienation. Two policemen are keeping guard at the door of their room. “At night, CIO agents come to visit us, Dlhamini whispers. We are still being detained. I don't want to go through the same horror again. When we were captured, they threatened to send us to the crocodiles... I will never forgive.” Gandhi Mudzingwa doesn't want to linger on his captivity. “ The ground is shifting. We need to help Morgan
[Tsangirai] now. He has shown a different type of leadership, and now we need to get financial help from the US to stabilise the country's economy.” A policeman walks past the window of the bedroom door. Silence.

Political opponents are not the only ones targeted by the regime's apparatchik. Outside the Magistrate Court, the defendants gather around Jestina Mukoko, a fervent critic of Mugabe's regime. She is a journalist
and heads ZPP (Zimbabwe Peace Project), an organization that has been recording human rights violation in the country. Mukoko's high profile struggle put her behind bars. In December last year, 15 men abducted
her at her residence. She was released after three months of physical abuse. Mukoko is not ready to give an interview. “Not yet, not now, not here. Everything I say could be used as an excuse to detain me again.”
Mukoko scribbles her phone number on a torn piece of paper, and slips out of the tribunal. In the end, she won't have had to speak to the media to put herself in danger. Three days later, she is incarcerated for
suspicion of terrorist activities and released a day later.

These arrests and intimidations confirm the fragility of the Unity Government. Morgan Tsvangirai has condemned these abuse saying “the regime is conducting a deliberate and targeted national terror campaign
to undermine the MDC's support within Zimbabwe and the work of the pro-democracy and human rights organizations ”, but Beatrice Mtetwa voices some concerns about the MDC's good intentions. “If things have
improved? There is less violence, but the justice system is more and more abusive. Negotations are taking place behind closed doors, so we don't know how Zanu-PF and MDC negoctiate the democracy of this

Beatrice Mtetwa, is a powerful and high profile lawyer in Zimbabwe. She has been threatened and intimidated many times. A struggle for which she received the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights
Prize 2009. She is the first African woman to receive it, 25 years after Nelson Mandela. “This prize proves that we are not doing anything wrong. And it encourages me to fight for the independence of the judiciary.
They can try to put me in my coffin. If I become the last to be defending [people's rights], then I will be it.” Without major changes and serious commitment from the new unity government, the long awaited financial
support and bail out from the International community will be delayed. In a country where everything has to be re-built from scratch, progress does not promise to be fast.

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