The men came for Bothwell Pasipamire just after midnight on Dec. 13, armed with pistols. With his wife screaming, they pushed him into a brand-new white Toyota pickup truck, and took the young newly elected councillor of a small rural town on what he thought would be the last drive of his life.
For the next three days, Mr. Pasipamire would be beaten, tortured, and forced on camera to beat a mutinous Zimbabwe army soldier, and then confess to various crimes against President Robert Mugabe's government, until he was finally allowed to escape by sympathetic intelligence officers.
His story – told to reporters from the safety of Johannesburg, South Africa, as civic activists and fellow members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) face trial for treason this week in his native Zimbabwe – speaks volumes about the brutal lengths to which Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party is willing to go to stay in power, nine months after losing national elections to the MDC.
"The ZANU-PF, they are trying to cause fear within the people of Zimbabwe," says Mr. Pasipamire, speaking with the Monitor at a Johannesburg hotel. "For example, I am a town councillor. People will say, 'If a councillor is abducted, eh! What about myself?' "
Three months after agreeing to share power with the MDC in a coalition government, Mugabe continues to rule his impoverished and famished country with an iron fist.
While neighboring African nations urge Zimbabwe's contending parties to set their differences aside, and are putting extra pressure on MDC leaders to reach a deal, any deal, Mugabe's security agencies are sweeping the country, arresting, beating, and then charging rivals with crimes punishable by death. In such an environment, experts say, peaceful negotiation is nearly impossible.
"This diminishes the prospect of a functional coalition government," says Ozias Tungwarara, an expert on Zimbabwe for the Open Society Institute in Johannesburg. "ZANU-PF has never been serious about reforming the political environment. Their only interest is holding on to political power at all costs."
Mugabe's campaign of terror – coming at a time of complete economic collapse, growing famine, and a cholera epidemic as water and sanitation systems break down – began almost as soon as he agreed to a power-sharing deal with the MDC on Sept. 15.
The MDC, whose president, Morgan Tsvangirai, defeated Mugabe in the first round of elections on March 29, reports that some 40 of its members have disappeared from their homes since Oct. 25. Eleven of these abductees, like those abducted during the presidential campaign earlier this year, have never surfaced and are thought to be now dead.
The MDC's numbers are slightly higher than those kept by rights groups, such as the Harare-based Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. According to that organization, eight non-MDC activists have been detained along with Jestina Mukoko, the founder of the Zimbabwe Peace Project; seven MDC activists soon joined them at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison and Chikurubi Female Prison.
"Behind the political crisis and health emergency, there is a worsening human rights crisis in Zimbabwe, with the most recent development being this unprecedented spate of abductions of human rights defenders," said Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International's branch in South Africa. "This shows the audacity of a regime that is desperate to stay in power…. The only way out of this problem is through unified pressure from outside, in particular of African leaders."
While Zimbabwe police first denied having MDC members and civic activists like Ms. Mukoko in custody, they later admitted the activists were under arrest, and charged them with recruiting young men to train in guerrilla warfare and sabotage in alleged training camps in neighboring Botswana. Activists under trial have testified that they were tortured, like Pasipamire, into signing false confessions.
Mukoko, in her sworn court testimony, and Pasipamire, in his recorded statement before legal counsel, have both alleged that officers of Zimbabwe's feared Central Intelligence Organization beat them on the feet with heavy rubber cords.
In Pasipamire's case, a CIO warrant officer named Mabhunu also allegedly sexually assaulted him, and tried to force him to kill a mutinous Zimbabwe army soldier with a crowbar, in front of a TV camera.
"I don't want you to suffer, but we do need your help," Pasipamire recalls Mabhunu telling him during an interrogation. "All I want you to do is to kill one of the soldiers we have here at the camp. The soldiers have already been beaten; they won't fight with you. But I need you to hit one of them on the head with this and kill him. Can you do that for me?"
"I have never killed anyone in my life. I can't do that," Pasipamire recalls saying.
"OK, can you pretend to do it?" Mabhunu allegedly replied.
The next morning, Pasipamire and other men were "made to pretend" to beat a young soldier in camouflage uniform, while a TV camera filmed them. He then confessed on TV to having beaten soldiers and murdered at least one, on the order or Mr. Tsvangirai.
Afterward, he recalls, "one of the officials patted me on the shoulder and said, 'Don't worry if it is true or not. It's what we need, nothing more.' "
After four days, Pasipamire escaped from the torture camp, assisted by sympathetic members of the CIO.
"There are some inside ZANU-PF and CIO who do not believe in what they are doing," he says, adding that he cannot say more without endangering those who remain in Zimbabwe.
Pasipamire also thinks that Mugabe's tactics will not hold down Zimbabweans forever. "People see if you don't do anything, then there [will be] no change," he says. "But if you push, then things will change. I can't say when, but someday, I'm sure everything is going to be OK in Zimbabwe."