'Yes, You Will Be Thoroughly Beaten'
jonw | November 2, 2006 at 08:16 amby
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A tsunami has rolled through Zimbabwe, different from the tidal waves that hit Asia in 2004. Ours came last year, in the form of bulldozers and soldiers. Vibrant towns were reduced to flat and desolate grounds. More than 700,000 people lost their homes and livelihood. Why?
President Robert Mugabe thought that the poor people who lived in these urban areas represented a political threat. He feared that the citizens might mobilize against him. So he launched a pre-emptive strike against those already suffering under his policies. He called it "Operation Murambatsvina," literally "Operation Clear the Filth" -- the "filth" being hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean men, women and children who were internally displaced, many of whom continue to live without access to humanitarian assistance today.
Zimbabwe was once a success story in Africa, but over his long rule Mr. Mugabe has dragged us all down. Under the pretext of pan-Africanism, he has created a system of terror for the majority and patronage for the elite few. Our inflation is estimated to be the highest rate in the world. According to the WHO, Zimbabweans have the shortest life expectancy world-wide -- the average life span has halved to only 35 years old today from 69 in 2000.
In the past six years, the government of Zimbabwe has increasingly turned to repressive and often violent means to suppress criticism from the opposition and civil society. Opposition political parties have been stifled. Police and other state-sponsored agents routinely intimidate, attack and torture government critics, including members of civil-society organizations, human-rights lawyers, journalists and trade unionists. At the same time, the police use repressive laws to silence critical voices in the remnants of civil society. Americans may take for granted the essential freedoms of speech and assembly. But in Zimbabwe, printing presses have been bombed and newspapers have been closed for criticizing Mr. Mugabe.
In reaction to recent waves of protests against deteriorating social and economic conditions, the Zimbabwean government this autumn intensified its campaign to suppress those of us who are peacefully dissenting. On Sept. 25, the government violently ended a peaceful march by some 500 activists from the National Constitutional Assembly in Harare. Riot police armed with batons blocked the march, ordered the activists to sit down, and proceeded to beat them one at a time with batons. During the beatings, people panicked, leading to a stampede that injured several dozen.
Mr. Mugabe has thrown himself into this campaign to stifle critics. Responding to the arrest and torture of 15 trade-union activists in September, he said "some are crying that they were beaten. Yes, you will be thoroughly beaten."
Today, Zimbabwe's man-made human-rights catastrophe is bleeding across the region, as Zimbabweans continue to stream into South Africa to escape the deteriorating political and economic conditions at home. An estimated 1.2 to 3 million Zimbabweans refugees now live in South Africa, and the stability of the Southern African region is increasingly at stake.
The effort to fight HIV/AIDS has also suffered serious setbacks. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Mr. Mugabe's forced evictions have disrupted access to treatment and health care for thousands of Zimbabweans living with HIV. Today, more than a year after the evictions, many still live in appalling conditions, without shelter or in overcrowded houses. As a result they are left not only more prone to opportunistic infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, but also exposed to a more resistant strain of HIV with potentially catastrophic consequences for the whole region.
After working for many years as a commercial lawyer in Mutare, I was abducted, tortured and threatened for simply defending individuals who stood in the way of Mr. Mugabe. My co-workers and I have been arrested and dragged to the courts for trying to document and create an official record of government abuses. Some people ask me why I bother using the legal system when the deck is so stacked against us. I answer that there is still a semblance of a court system and some brave judges who will uphold the law. But they are operating in straitjackets and desperately need support to continue doing the right thing.
We in Zimbabwe will continue our long fight to restore civil society, the rule of law and basic human rights. But we need the support of the international community.
Human-rights defenders in Zimbabwe face enormous risks as they fight for reparations and resettlement of the hundreds of thousands made homeless by Mr. Mugabe's evictions. The U.S. can support these activists through the provision of technical assistance and other forms of targeted support. Greater humanitarian assistance is also required for the victims of the evictions who today remain in desperate need of housing, food and other forms of assistance.
The crisis in Zimbabwe does not just affect Zimbabwe. It destabilizes the entire region. It also tests the interests of Western society. For example, in the absence of concerted U.S. assistance and support, Beijing has seen a strategic opportunity to fill a vacuum: China is moving in to fill the gap in Zimbabwe and other developing countries -- without any concern for human rights or democracy.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights stands for a Zimbabwe that adheres to constitutionalism, the independence of the judiciary and respect for basic human rights. Just as Mr. Mugabe has used law with tsunami-like force for his own political ends, our vision is to use it to rebuild a just, stable and democratic society that adheres to the rule of law.
Mr. Tsunga is the executive director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. He will be awarded Human Rights Watch's top honor at the organization's Voices for Justice dinner tonight in New York City.
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