Needed: One White Colonial Ruler for Zimbabwe

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Prospective Colonial Ruler Sarah Hager (on left) with several potential minions.

Prospective Colonial Ruler Sarah Hager (on left) with several potential minions.

As a mostly white person, I have decided that I would like to be the next colonial occupier of Zimbabwe. It’s a great country-fertile land, fabulous people, rich mineral resources. I think I should be able to set up operations fairly quickly and I love to tell people what to do.  So my life’s ambition to be a benevolent dictator will be satisfied far quicker than I ever dreamed possible.

I always thought that to establish said benevolent dictatorship, I would have to buy a private island and import my friends to serve as my minions. So imagine my surprise at reading Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in the New York Times last week where he reports that apparently every Zimbabwean he spoke with really wishes Britain, the former colonial power, never left.

In a week of surreptitious reporting here (committing journalism can be a criminal offense in Zimbabwe), ordinary people said time and again that life had been better under the old, racist, white regime of what was then called Rhodesia.

First of all, Mr. Kristoff doesn’t seem to be aware of the fact that foreign journalists have been allowed back into Zimbabwe for nearly a year. While said journalists are advised to operate with caution, and there have still been hiccups, the whole “cloak and dagger/new passport/kids as camouflage” routine was a tad overkill. Things aren’t great in Zimbabwe, but let’s not exaggerate the situation.

Second, Mr. Kristof admits to speaking to no government officials and he “can’t be sure that my glimpse of the public mood was representative.” I’m pretty sure, however, he didn’t bother speaking to any of the members of Zimbabwe’s civil society fighting for changed circumstances. Perhaps the leaders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise  who were arrested today protesting poor service and exhorbitant rates of the electric service. Maybe the lawyers of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights who promptly showed up at the police station and secured the release of many of those detained today. How about Jestina Mukoko of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, kidnapped and tortured for her efforts to hold the government accountable for its abuses. I bet every single one of them would gladly step aside and let me take over because I could do the job so much better than they.

I appreciate that Mr. Kristof chose to highlight these remarks as a way to sensationalize the situation in Zimbabwe because he has a job to do selling papers. The rest of his commentary about the West focusing on white farmers at the expense of black laborers, the state of the medical and education system and the need for free and fair elections are all accurate statements. But the reader is initially and predominantly captured by this idea that Zimbabweans feel that if the white people had never given up power, things would all be better, disregarding the thousands of Zimbabweans fighting on their own to improve their country.  

So while Zimbabwe is a bit tattered around the edges, her will is strong and her beauty is evident. So I will gladly resume colonial control and begin my benevolent dictatorship. All the civil society leaders mentioned above and Zimbabweans in general know where to find me when they are ready to cede their struggle. Until then, I will continue my efforts to stand in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe and help tell their story without unnecessary dramatic flourishes.

Zimbabwe's Heroes

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Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams of WOZA

Zimbabwe gets a lot of bad press, but not many are aware of some of the amazing people making a difference there every day. These are people, who usually at great personal risk, fight for human rights, civil liberties, justice, equality and a better Zimbabwe for all. So here’s a shout out to some personal heroes of mine and I hope you are equally inspired.  (Feel free to share stories about other amazing human rights heroes in Zim or southern Africa in general in the comment section.)

Betty Makoni
Betty is a teacher who got tired of hearing about the relentless sexual abuse of young girls and decided to do something about it. She started the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe to provide a safe place, healing and support for young girls surviving sexual assault. Many of the girls were victimized because of a belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS. As a result of her efforts, Betty has been targeted by security forces in Zimbabwe and forced to flee the country for her safety. A documentary film tells the story of Betty and the girls she helps. Betty has also been nominated as CNN’s Hero of the Year. You can vote for Betty on CNN’s web site until November 19th. Vote early and often! SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

All Charges Against Zimbabwe POC Jestina Mukoko Dropped

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Jestina Mukoko with cards from Amnesty International members.

Today the Zimbabwe Supreme Court ruled in favor of the motion brought by Jestina Mukoko’s lawyer that all charges against her should be dropped due to the torture she experienced at the hands of state security agents.

Late last year, Jestina Mukoko, head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was abducted from her home, illegally detained, tortured and charged with recruiting persons to participate in alleged militia camps in Botswana. She was one of 18 persons abducted and tortured around this time and charged with variations of the same crime. On June 25th of this year, the Supreme Court heard a petition from Ms. Mukoko and her co-defendants claiming their arrest was unconstitutional because they were illegally abducted and tortured. The Attorney General’s office admitted that Ms. Mukoko was illegally detained by state security agents but asserted that this should have no bearing on the case.

Amnesty International spoke with Jestina today after she left court, who said she was “over the moon with excitement.”

We also want to convey a message to YOU, Amnesty’s activists, in the eloquent words of Amnesty’s Zimbabwe researcher:

“Each time I meet Jestina she is quick to mention her appreciation of the campaign by AI members for her freedom. Thank you all for the actions you have been taking to apply pressure on the Zimbabwean authorities so that people like Jestina can enjoy their freedom.  Jestina was the face of at least 23 human rights and political activists who were victims of enforced disappearances from October to December 2008.  But we all kept the light burning for them and wishing them freedom.  Human rights defenders like Jestina count on our support.  Our cards, letters, calls and sometimes just good wishes gives them hope to fight for another day. “

Zimbabwe Justice: No Dancing Babies

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The legal system in Zimbabwe isn’t comprised of lawyers in skimpy clothing sharing a unisex bathroom while litigating bizarre and yet fascinating cases. Instead, there is a politicized judiciary, draconian laws designed to stifle dissent and a prison system that would give Auschwitz a run for its money. Amnesty International is monitoring the legal cases of human rights defenders and political activists. Below is an update on some of these cases.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA)-
The leaders of WOZA were arrested and jailed in October 2008 for disturbing the peace during a protest over food aid distribution. Their trial has been continually delayed by both the prosecution and due to a petition the women filed before the Supreme Court asking the charges be dismissed as unconstitutional as Zimbabwe’s Constitution guarantees the right of assembly. The leaders, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu appeared in court yesterday where the magistrate wanted to proceed to trial despite this pending petition. The Supreme Court verbally ruled on June 4th that the arrest was unlawful but a written decision has not yet been produced. The case was finally postponed again until August 17th to wait for the ruling from the Court.

On June 18th, four members of WOZA were viciously beaten by police during a protest to call attention to the plight of informal traders struggling to make a living in Zimbabwe. Yesterday, a court in Harare ruled that the police officers responsible will be charged with assault. The case was postponed to July 13th to allow the officers time to prepare their case. The charges against the four WOZA members of disturbing the peace were dropped the day before.

Jestina Mukoko et al-
Late last year, Jestina Mukoko, head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was abducted from her home, illegally detained, tortured and charged with recruiting persons to participate in alleged militia camps in Botswana. She is one of 18 persons abducted and tortured around this same time and charged with variations of the same crime. On June 25th, the Supreme Court heard a petition from Ms. Mukoko and her co-defendants claiming their arrest was unconstitutional because they were illegally abducted and tortured. The Attorney General’s office admitted that Ms. Mukoko was illegally detained by state security agents but asserted that this should have no bearing on the case. A decision by the Court is still pending.

MDC activists and an independent journalist also on trial filed a petition before the Supreme Court asserting the same claim of unconstitutionality. At the hearing before the High Court, however, the State Security Minister took the opportunity to deny that the defendants, including Mukoko, were illegally detained. The petition was referred on to the Supreme Court. It is assumed that the remaining abductees will file similar complaints and their cases will be remanded until such time as the Supreme Court rules on the pending petitions.

Not So Merry Go 'Round of Justice in Zimbabwe

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It’s a bad time to be defender of human rights in Zimbabwe.

Late last year, Zimbabwe authorities abducted eighteen human rights defenders and political activists.  Their families feared them dead.   Those seized were eventually dropped off at police stations and processed for crimes against the state, including sabotage, terrorism and treason.  During their four months in captivity, the activists claim they were tortured and ill-treated by state agents.

Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was one of those abducted last year.

Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was one of those abducted last year.

Thankfully bail conditions were settled in March and April for most.  However, three of those originally detained – Kisimusi Dhlamini, Gandhi Mudzingwa and Andrison Manyere – were released only to be re-arrested in their hospital beds three days later.

Earlier this week, the eighteen activists reappeared in court where new indictments were filed by the Zimbabwe Attorney General.  Based on the new indictments, bail was revoked and they were all returned to prison.  Following immediate international condemnation, most of the prisoners were granted bail again on Wednesday when President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai intervened and ordered the Attorney General to allow bail.

Not to make light of an awful situation, but the Zimbabwe government might want to consider putting  revolving doors on the courthouse and prisons because apparently, being a human rights defender or political activist in Zimbabwe grants you a “go straight to jail, do not pass go” card on a regular basis.

The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe escalated drastically following elections in March of 2008.  State sponsored violence led to large numbers of torture, disappearances and sexual assaults. Regional authorities negotiated a power sharing agreement in October; however activists and human rights defenders continued to be targeted for their efforts to provide a better quality of life, such as equitable food aid distribution for Zimbabweans.

Listen to a 30 second audio clip of activist Jestina Mukoko after her release in March, discussing the support her and her family received during her ordeal from Amnesty International members.

Written by Sarah Hager, Southern Africa Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA