'It Feels Like We Are Under Siege'

Rights activist Jestina Mukoko, in red, is led to court with other unidentified activists in Harare on Dec. 24. Mukoko has been accused of plotting to topple President Robert Mugabe.
Rights activist Jestina Mukoko, in red, is led to court with other unidentified activists in Harare on Dec. 24. Mukoko has been accused of plotting to topple President Robert Mugabe. (Associated Press)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 9, 2009

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- At 72, Fidelis Chiramba had spent a decade as a rural opposition party organizer, and late 2008 seemed to bring the truest promise yet for the democracy he wanted. In September, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's autocratic president for nearly three decades, shook hands with his rivals and agreed to share power.

But one dark October morning, Chiramba was seized by several men in four cars, his wife said. Soon, dozens of civil rights and opposition activists had vanished, according to human rights organizations and lawyers. They remained missing until late December, when authorities marched Chiramba and 17 others into court on accusations of plotting to overthrow Mugabe.

The allegation is widely viewed as an invention. But the activists remain behind bars, and Chiramba's wife has come to think his hope was an illusion.

"Only God's will can change this country, because this government is adamant, " Sophia Chiramba, 69, said in an interview in Harare, the capital. "It is not willing to change. We human beings have tried. But I believe there's a limit."

As defense lawyers have futilely petitioned courts for their release, the jailed activists have become the latest symbols of the demise of what seemed to be a breakthrough power-sharing deal and, critics say, of Mugabe's resolve to keep control of the crumbling nation using the repressive tactics that characterize his government.

"It feels like we are under siege," said Fambai Ngirande, advocacy and public policy director for a Harare-based umbrella group of nongovernmental organizations. "That's how repression works. You cow people into submission. You crack down heavily on any form of dissent. And meanwhile, you're pumping out propaganda."

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has threatened to quit power-sharing talks because of the disappearances and detentions, which his party has called a "sinister plot" to decimate critics. Tsvangirai, who outpolled Mugabe in presidential elections last year, withdrew from a widely condemned runoff months later, citing political violence. The talks have been stalled for months over the allocation of key ministries, which Tsvangirai's party says Mugabe insists on keeping for himself.

The relationship between the parties is "totally artificial," said Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, Tsvangirai's party. Chamisa called the accusations "hogwash."

State news media reported this week that Mugabe planned to form a new government next month, but it was unclear whether he would do so alone. A constitutional amendment that would permit the creation of a unity government is set to go to the opposition-led parliament this month, which could facilitate an agreement. If negotiations die, it is likely new elections would be called -- an unattractive prospect to the opposition, dozens of whose supporters were beaten and killed by security forces after last year's polls.

This round of abductions, as critics refer to them, began when more than a dozen MDC activists in Chiramba's farming community -- which had turned against the ruling party in last year's elections -- disappeared. The seizures drew international attention in early December, when prominent former newscaster and peace activist Jestina Mukoko was dragged out of her home by armed men. Two more workers from Mukoko's organization, which tracks political violence, similarly vanished, as did a top adviser to Tsvangirai and the MDC's security director.

Many remain missing, according to the MDC. Defense lawyers say police and prison authorities have defied court orders to release those in custody or allow them medical treatment for injuries the lawyers say have resulted from torture.

On Wednesday, seven of the detainees were charged in connection with minor bombings at a police station and a railway line, incidents other opposition activists had already been acquitted of.

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