Death threats roil Zimbabwe

Within the past two weeks, President Mugabe's party allegedly ordered the killing of opposition leaders.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Within the past two weeks, an order to assassinate four members of Zimbabwe's opposition leadership has allegedly come from within President Robert Mugabe's government.

The four have been warned by a source within the Army's Military Intelligence Corps that a hit-squad has been formed and given specific instructions to eliminate them.

The order, the source claims, was sanctioned by at least three members of the president's cabinet, a 26-strong grouping of stalwarts from Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.

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The targets, according to the source, are shadow justice and legal affairs secretary David Coltart; Chimanimani Member of Parliament, Roy Bennett; Harare Central Member of Parliament, Mike Auret; and the shadow secretary for economic affairs, Eddie Cross.

"The information has come through a trusted and well-placed source," Mr. Bennett told the Monitor. "This person claims that a team has been put in place, but the members of that team are not happy with their orders."

A spokesman for the ZANU-PF denies the claim. "The allegations are false. We have no intention of killing MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] people," he says. "We have had an election and we have been voted into power again. The MDC are just manifesting these allegations because they lost the election."

Reminded that the allegations originate from within the military intelligence corps, not the MDC, the spokesman added, "The MDC just plant these stories."

Not the first death threat

All four targets are prominent whites within the MDC whose leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has accused Mugabe of vote- rigging in the March election.

This isn't the first time some of these people's lives have been threatened. But since the election, 54 political murders have taken place, according to a human rights group here. For this reason, they take this threat seriously.

A respected lawyer and human rights advocate, Mr. Coltart is responsible for overseeing the MDC's legal challenges to both the results of the June 2000 parliamentary election and the March presidential election, along with a number of cases challenging the constitutionality of legislation strengthening government and presidential powers.

Coltart and Mr. Auret played important roles in exposing the so-called Gukurahundi of the 1980s, an operation in which President Mugabe's Fifth Brigade is accused of having massacred up to 30,000 civilians in Matabeleland to crush opposition.

"I am by no means paranoid and I have certainly had death threats more direct than this before," says Coltart. "But what's alarming about this case is the identity of the source, who is well placed and well trusted.

"It doesn't worry me in the sense that I would consider changing what I do, but it obviously means that I have to up my security. Given what's going on in the country, with brutality being perpetrated against our supporters every day, we have to take this as a serious warning."

He adds: "If you took the four of us out of the equation, the belief that the MDC would crumble without us is nonsense."

Three months ago, Coltart received another death threat. On Feb. 5, he received a faxed warning of a Military Intelligence Corps death plot against various named MDC members and white farmers. Marked with the official stamp of the corps, the list was leaked by a colonel within the Army, who wrote a cover letter warning: "It's up to you to take measure [sic] to vacant [sic] those people immediately ... the action is so barbaric."

The MDC believes that there is protection in publicizing such information, but is wary of falling victim to setups. Last month, the party appears to have been deliberately tricked by the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Mugabe's notorious secret police, with a false story about a woman having been beheaded by ZANU-PF activists.

Four journalists from the independent media were arrested after the claims of George Nyadzayo – a man purporting to be the woman's husband – turned out to be false. It has subsequently been established by Zimbabwe's independent newspaper, the Daily News, that Mr. Nyadzayo had links to the CIO officer-in-charge at the Makoni post in the town of Chitungwiza.

Although the MDC reported that Nyadzayo had swinded them out of approximately $410 – money it handed over to support him and his family – police have refused to arrest him. The four journalists, however, face potential jail sentences for the "publication of falsehoods."

Being followed

Coltart says he does not believe the assassination alert to be anything less than genuine. Since last Wednesday, he has encountered four incidents of being followed – in one case, being trailed by what appeared to be a CIO vehicle.

Bennett, a farmer and businessman, has endured trouble since he was voted into office two years ago. Chimanimani was formerly one of ZANU-PF's strongest constituencies. "It embarrassed them, so they have turned their big guns on us ever since," he says. "Now the violence against our supporters is 10 times worse than before the presidential election in March.

"Straight after the election, the CIO came and trashed our office, broke the windows and ripped the phone out," continues Bennett. "The Army came and made the staff lie on the ground, making them do push-ups and beating them on the buttocks. They told them: 'If you stay, you will be killed.' "

Two weeks ago, 19 of the MDC's constituency workers in Chimanimani were arrested after a local CIO official claimed his home had been attacked with a petrol bomb. They were held in police cells, where they say buckets of urine were thrown over them and a cold hose turned on them at intervals throughout the night.

"When our lawyers went to see them, they were chased away at gunpoint," says Bennett. "The Army were at the police station. They said: 'This is a military situation and we'll shoot if you don't go away.' "

He adds: "On my farm now, I am looking after refugees whose homes have been totally trashed because they are MDC supporters. Their homes have been burned, their property has been destroyed ... right down to every last pot and pan.

"What can you do against a government like this? Now I get a warning saying the government wants me dead. I think if they could do it, they would do it...."

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