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'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)

Chiramba, Mukoko and six activists have been accused, but not charged, of recruiting fighters to topple Mugabe. Zimbabwean authorities say militia training has taken place in neighboring Botswana. That country, a strong critic of Mugabe, has denied the allegations, and the 15-nation Southern African Development Community has dismissed the claim.

"There is an army in Zimbabwe which cannot be confronted with people who are trained over weekends," South African President Kgalema Motlanthe told reporters last month.

Prosecutors have presented no detailed evidence of the militia plot in court hearings, though defense lawyers and MDC officials said the jailed activists were forced to read scripted confessions on videotape. A state prosecutor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a government spy had gathered evidence by infiltrating Mukoko's organization.

The timing of the allegations, as power-sharing talks sputter, is the subject of much speculation among the many who think they are false. Some suspect Mugabe is laying the groundwork to declare a state of emergency, allowing him to suspend rights, or launching a new phase of intimidation ahead of fresh elections. Others say it might be an attempt to force Tsvangirai to agree to participate in a unity government on Mugabe's terms.

"It is very clear to Mugabe and other rational beings that without Tsvangirai, the power-sharing deal is dead and the international community will not touch Zimbabwe," said Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe.

But paranoia has been simmering within the top levels of government, according to an October report prepared by Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organization, part of which was viewed by The Washington Post. Hinting at just how little the ruling party trusts its new partners in government, the report cited a "very high possibility" of unrest fueled by opposition and civic organizations, and suspicions about the training of "some people in unfriendly neighboring countries." The report advised that surveillance of the MDC be increased and that suspects be arrested "as soon as possible."

"We know that there is an active process for the regime-change agenda. There are material facts to prove that," Didymus Mutasa, Zimbabwe's state security minister, said in an interview. Asked what the facts are, Mutasa said: "These people who have been arrested."

That sounds unimaginable to Nomatter Masuku, 30, whose sister and brother-in-law, MDC leaders in the same rural town where Chiramba lived, disappeared in late October and appeared in court last month.

Concillia and Emmanuel Chinhanzvana were fed up with Zimbabwe's rampant hunger and unemployment, Masuku said, and they thought it was time to give others a chance to run the nation. Relatives tried to steer the couple away from politics, telling them it was too dangerous, Masuku said.

They were determined, she said, but hardly the types to plan an insurrection. "I don't believe they are capable of handling a gun," Masuku said.

Sophia Chiramba also scoffs at the idea that her husband of 50 years would -- even could -- partake in a coup.

She visited him in prison in late December, and the guards would not let her hold his hand, she said. She has given up believing that her husband will ever again tend to his vegetable garden, which she says has now turned to bush.

"I just said to myself, 'At least I get the chance to see him,' " Sophia Chiramba said wearily. "Even if they kill him later."

A Washington Post special correspondent contributed to this report.


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