Zimbabwe -- human rights under fire. Locking up the opposition in a leading `front-line state'

FOR a nation that fought its way to independence on a platform of freedom and equality, socialist Zimbabwe's ``open society'' is sadly slipping into a state of repression all too familiar in Africa. This is particularly distressing for a country that has as much going for it as Zimbabwe does. It remains black Africa's most advanced and imaginative society. Its belated independence, 15 to 20 years after that of many of its fellow nations, gave it the advantage of being able to learn from the mistakes of others. What Zimbabwe saw, when it heralded its freedom from white-minority rule in April 1980, was that most African nations have deteriorated into one-party dictatorships with little or no taste for criticism, and are the worse off for it.

According to Minister of Information Nathan Shamuyarira, it has achieved a multiracial ``open society'' where ``no one has to look over their shoulder. . . . You are free to say what you like.''

Critics, however, disagree. The Harare government, dominated by the northern Shona tribe, has adopted policies that are not only intolerant toward the southern Ndebele tribe, but are leading to a stifling of free expression. If this continues, Zimbabwe could develop into a nation of corruption and totalitarianism.

The tragic irony is that many of those now in power are employing the same methods that were used against them by the former Rhodesian government. These abuses are being perpetrated under emergency provisions introduced during the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence, but never rescinded by the prime minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. Ironically, too, these measures are not vastly different from those South Africa has imposed under its current state of emergency.

Since 1980, human rights sources maintain, numerous political dissidents, or suspected dissidents, have been detained without trial, tortured, and killed. Ordinary citizens have been arbitrarily arrested and charged with being South African agents. People are afraid to speak about issues considered sensitive or treasonous by the government.

Official threats against those expressing ``negative'' or ``defeatist'' attitudes have effectively repressed the sort of public debate vital to any open society.

For example, there has been virtually no discussion here about the possible consequences that international sanctions against South Africa might have on the Zimbabwean economy. Although many sources, both black and white, were willing to discuss sanctions in private, few are prepared to go on record. ``That's jail material,'' a transport company director commented.

Journalists, too, have come under fire for drawing attention to tribal friction or human rights' violations. A number have been threatened with jail, or have been expelled.

Mr. Mugabe's administration has released a number of detainees this year, and claims to be holding only 200 political prisoners. But it has yet to admit to the abuses of its security forces, notably in Matabeleland -- home of the Ndebeles. Such abuses have long been alleged by various human rights organizations, church groups, and journalists.

In particular, officials have taken bitter umbrage at Amnesty International for its pressure on the government to launch an investigation into human rights abuses. Last June, the London-based human rights organization, which claims it has been misrepresented by the official media, sent out 400 letters to explain its position directly to members of Parliament, editors, and influential citizens.

During the Rhodesian war, Amnesty adopted hundreds of political prisoners, including Mugabe and other members of the present government, and publicized human rights violations by the administration of Ian Smith. Nevertheless, Enos Nkala, the minister of home affairs, has branded Amnesty an ``enemy of Zimbabwe'' and threatened anyone caught sending reports to the organization with detention.

Such threats are expected to further inhibit critical expression from within.

``Here in Zimbabwe, we are faced with the problem of defining the interests of the country with the interests of the state,'' noted former Sunday Mail editor Willy Musarurwa, an outspoken journalist who spent nearly 11 years in prison under Mr. Smith's regime. ``That is where our definition goes haywire. In Africa, if you criticize the government, you are criticizing the country. Therefore you are committing treason.''

Nevertheless, at least two of Amnesty's claims have been recently vindicated by Zimbabwe courts. In one case, four men charged with murdering a senator of the ruling ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African Nation Union-Patriotic Front) Party in 1984 were acquitted after a high court ruled that they had been tortured to obtain confessions. In another, a parliamentarian from the opposition ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People's Union) party won damages after it was proved that he was beaten and almost drowned while in custody.

A third case involving the detention of two white customs officials is causing the Mugabe administration considerable embarrassment. The two men, John Austin and Ken Harper, were arrested last February as suspected South African spies, an allegation that they deny and which the minister of state for security has refused to substantiate. On several occasions, they were released by court order for lack of evidence, but then immediately re-arrested on the orders of security minister Emmerson Munangagwa.

A ruling by the Supreme Court declared in July that the government can no longer hold detainees by citing emergency regulations, then prevent courts from examining the alleged reasons for their detention. The chief justice said a government statement that a detainee is a spy ``is not good enough.'' He added: ``When the executive ignores the orders and judgments of the courts, there is an inevitable breakdown of law and order.''

Nevertheless, Mr. Austin and Mr. Harper remain in jail. There is concern that the men, known as conscientious civil servants, may have been framed. Sources maintain that Harper, who is the head of customs investigations, was tracking down a drug and car theft racket with top political connections, ``and may have probed too deeply.'' Another source added: ``If that is the case, then it is extremely worrying if politicians can do what they want without restraint.''

The scars left by the five-year war for black majority rule are partly responsible for such heavy-handedness; so is the turmoil in South Africa. Government paranoia has soared, notably since Pretoria's attacks last May against alleged targets of the African National Congress in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana. The ANC is the strongest South African black nationalist group fighting for an end to white minority rule and segregation in that country.

But the most deep-rooted cause is the rivalry that exists between the majority Shona and the Ndebele, who represent one-fifth of the population.

``That has always been Zimbabwe's real war,'' one observer noted. ``When the whites first came here in the 1890s, Ndebele warriors (a Zulu tribe) were wiping out the Shona, stealing their women and their cattle. The Shona were a dying race. The white man disrupted the system by putting an end to the Ndebele raids. Now the Shona are extracting their historical revenge.''

Zimbabwe's divisions, however, are not only tribal. They are also ideological as well as regional, with infighting among the Shona-speaking clans. For Mugabe, the only means of holding the country together is to create a disciplined and socialist one-party state with political opponents, or ``enemies,'' crushed.

But critics warn that intimidation is not the way to go about achieving unity.

A controlled press is seen as one way Mugabe gets his message across. Today, most of the news media, such as the Harare-based Herald or the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation, are either directly influenced by the state or toe the party line. Only a few journals, notably the conservative Financial Gazette or the left-wing Moto, have managed to retain their independence, but observers wonder how long their criticisms of the government will last.

The official media strongly reflect the ideological rhetoric of much of the leadership, and more recently, the nonaligned movement. Last month, the movement held its summit in Harare and Mugabe became its chairman. Its rhetoric at the summit focused on events in ``racist'' South Africa, but ``American imperialism'' in Central America, ``fascist repression'' in Chile, or ``Zionist expansionism'' in the Middle East are also regularly featured when the 101-member-nation group gets together.

There is, however, little or no coverage on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or the repression of Solidarity in Poland. Nor does one see much critical reporting on regional neighbors such as Zambia or Tanzania, or even Zimbabwe's own military role in Mozambique.

Some news editors here, such as Tommy Sithole of the Herald, argue that Zimbabwe's journalists still lack the experience and resources needed to furnish a broader spectrum of reporting. But this is denied by a number of Zimbabwean reporters, who maintain that there are enough qualified people to establish the sort of watchdog press the country needs. ``We have a stooge media which practices what is known as `sunshine journalism,' '' one black journalist maintained. ``You don't criticize your friends or write about things that make your country or rulers look bad.''

Edward Girardet frequently reports on third-world affairs for the Monitor.

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