'It Feels Like We Are Under Siege'
Zimbabwe's Jailed Activists Symbolize Breakdown of Power-Sharing Deal

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.

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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