Mugabe using police to crush opposition, MDC says

Law enforcement officials are carrying out a covert operation to arrest Movement for Democratic Change politicians on trumped up charges as a way to diminish the opposition's clout in a fragile unity government, say MDC officials.

The party of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is working with the country's law enforcement agencies in a covert operation designed to harass, intimidate, and decimate its chief partner in Zimbabwe's fragile, seven-month-old coalition government, the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC officials have told the Monitor.

The covert operation targets MDC supporters in rural areas – despite an agreement between the two parties to work together to rebuild the country and its shattered economy – the MDC says. The operation aims to arrest or intimidate enough of MDC's parliamentarians to winnow down MDC's its majority, and thus retain political control.

MDC deputy national organizing secretary Morgan Komichi says that Mugabe's party, the ZANU-PF, continues to use its militia, including so-called "war veterans" and others used in land invasions of white farmers, along with the police, to silence its MDC parliamentarians, and is also turning the heat on ordinary supporters of the MDC in the rural areas.

"This strategy [of arresting of members of Parliament] has been extended to our ordinary members of our party," says Mr. Komichi. "ZANU-PF is using the police and the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) to harass our members."

Unity government close to collapse?

If the MDC is right, then Zimbabwe's peace agreement and its coalition government – hammered out after months of violence that followed the April 2008 elections – may be close to collapse. Negotiations between Mugabe's ZANU- PF and the MDC of Morgan Tsvangirai this week are said to be heated, with both sides accusing the other of reneging on their commitments. But it is the reports of increased arrests, harassment, and the revival of ZANU-PF torture camps – into which hundreds of MDC supporters disappeared without a trace last year – that may signal a return to the violence that crippled Zimbabwe for months last year. The reports also raise the question: Is Mugabe's party willing to use violence to hold onto power at all costs?

"It is not alarmist to say that a repeat of the violence we saw in the past year is possible again," says Ozias Tungwarara, a senior researcher with the Open Societies Institute in Johannesburg. "The ZANU-PF machinery of repression has not been dismantled. It is very clear that the more progress the Unity Government makes, the more threatened the ZANU-PF political elite will feel. Most of the elite are people who have not known any other life or experience outside of the framework of ransacking, patronage, and exploiting national resources."

Accusations of bad faith

Zimbabwe's Government of National Unity, composed of ZANU-PF and the two MDC formations, was formed in February 2009 after the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in September last year.

But the MDC has accused its partner of bad faith. The former ruling party for the past 29 years, which lost last year's elections, still orders the police to arrest MDC supporters on what MDC leaders call "trumped up charges." Notorious bases, which human rights groups say were used by ZANU-PF as torture chambers in the March 2008 elections, are being revived in what critics say is an attempt to reverse the little gains the inclusive government has made in the past seven months.

More than 200 killed

Over 200 MDC activists were murdered this past year.

Attorney General Johannes Tomana, a ZANU-PF member, has been accused of trying to whittle down MDC dominance in Parliament by arresting its MPs on trumped up charges. So far, more than five MDC legislators have been convicted of various offences and several others are facing charges ranging from abduction and rape to abuse of government's farm inputs program. Some, including Finance Minister Tendai Biti and Deputy Agriculture Minister Roy Bennett, are senior members of Parliament.

MDC members say that the government applies "prompt justice" only on MDC officials although "known murderers" linked to ZANU-PF have never been questioned by police. "We are also worried about the victimization of MDC MPs with the political intent of corroding and eroding our party's dominance in Parliament," says MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa.

Political cover

The use of the law enforcement agents, says Komichi, gives Mugabe some political cover from international criticism, since he can argue that the arrests are merely following the normal course of law, rather than "political victimization."

One such victim is Nation Gogora, an MDC activist in Mashonaland Central Province who was last week accused of public fighting in which he was never involved.

"I was taken into police custody where I was severely assaulted by the police in the presence of ZANU-PF officials I know," Mr. Gogora says. "To my surprise, when they were beating me they were telling me to stop any MDC activities in the area."

Early this month another MDC member, Samuel Mwanawacho fled his homestead in Mudzi in Mashonaland East Province after threats from known ZANU-PF militiamen who terrorized people during last year's elections. He said the same militia that killed people last year were still operating and continue to terrorize MDC supporters.

"Bases are still there but they only operate at night," he says. "They no longer gather at the bases during the day after the co-minister of home affairs said he was investigating the existence of the torture bases."

Underground militias

The militia went underground after MDC MP and co-Minister of Home Affairs Giles Mutsekwa last month said his office would investigate the existence of torture bases.

Senior military officers, who are accused of spearheading terror campaigns in last year's elections are still in the same provinces they operated from, says Komichi.

"They are still instilling fear in the hearts of the villagers," Komichi said. "ZANU-PF has militarized the whole country in an effort to keep on clinging to power."

Journalists and human rights activists continue to be arrested in an effort to cow them into silence.

The editor of The Zimbabwe Independent, Vincent Kahiya, and his news editor Constantine Chimakure are currently facing allegations of "publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the state." This was after they published a story in May revealing the names of law enforcement agents involved in last year's abductions of MDC and civic activists. The case has since been referred to the Supreme Court to determine if the charge violated their constitutional rights to freedom of expression.

Freelance journalist Andrison Manyere is on bail facing charges of banditry after he was accused of bombing police stations.

Human rights activist and director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), Jestina Mukoko, is on bail charged with recruiting people for military training in Botswana. She claimed to have been tortured while in custody.

Mugabe critics say Ms. Mukoko's "real crime" is that her organization documented every case of human rights violation that took place during and after last year's controversial elections.

Mukoko and Manyere were both abducted by state security and kept in secret jails for over a month without going to court.

A correspondent based in Harare – who could not be named for security reasons – contributed to this report.

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