US medical team, arrested in Zimbabwe, released on bail

The medical team had operated in Zimbabwe for more than 10 years before its members were arrested for operating without licenses. What happened?

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
American doctors, from left, Gregory Reinard, David Greenburg, and Gloria Cox Cronwell and New Zealand doctor Reid Andrew John appear at the magistrates courts in Harare, Zimbabwe, Monday. A Zimbabwean court has freed on bail four Americans arrested and accused of treating AIDS patients without proper medical licenses.

A team of American medical volunteers, who have been in police custody in Zimbabwe since Friday on charges of operating without a license, were released Monday on $200 bail each.

The team – which included one doctor, two nurses, and a community volunteer – represented the Christian volunteer health service of the Allen Temple AIDS Ministry based in Oakland, Calif., run by the Allen Temple Baptist Church. The mission has operated in Zimbabwe for more than 10 years, mostly focused on distributing antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients.

The Americans and one Zimbabwean appeared before Harare magistrate Munamato Mutevedzi and were told to return for a hearing on Sept. 27. They were ordered to surrender their passports, reside at their given addresses and not to interfere with witnesses.

The allegations

Jonathan Samkange, who represents the arrested medical team members, called the allegations “a minor technical offence” that did not warrant arrest. “The allegations are that they were practicing without a certificate and distributing drugs in the absence of a pharmacist,” says Mr. Samkange. “The allegations are a minor offence because they were not practicing.”

Samkange blasted the police for holding the doctors in custody for three days, describing the time they spent in jail as “excessive.” However, he claimed the medical team was not worried about the arrest.

“They are not angry because they are Christians,” says Samkange. “Their faith has been put on test. Don’t you know that even Jesus was also persecuted?”

Samkange says the Americans’ detention had affected hundreds of HIV/Aids patients around the country who were benefiting from their service. "It is surprising that they were arrested and yet they are helping a lot of AIDS patients,” he says. “Some of (their patients) are even officers from the Ministry of Justice.”

AIDS patients and activists hugged the doctors at the court soon after they were granted bail.

“I am so happy they (the doctors) are finally out,” says one patient who identifies himself as Daniel. “They must soon continue with their noble work. Many people are dying out there and yet we are putting the people of God in jail for assisting the needy.”

The medical team is based in Mutoko in Mashonaland East Province at a place now known as Mother Faith Mission.

Criminal matter or political move?

Analysts expressed mixed feelings about the arrest of the doctors. While some said it was purely a criminal matter, others said it was an attempt by Harare to humiliate the Americans.

University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer John Makumbe believes the arrests were political. He says the fact that the team has been working in the country for a long time under the same conditions was a clear indication that Harare had an agenda against Washington.

Mr. Makumbe says President Robert Mugabe was hitting back at US President Obama for criticizing the leader’s three-decade-long administration last month.

“Mugabe might be retaliating by hitting soft spots,” says Makumbe. “The problem is he is harassing people who are helping hundreds and thousands [of] HIV/AIDS patients around the country.”

The American president last month said he was “heartbroken” by what was happening in the southern African country.

“I think Mugabe is an example of a leader who came in as a liberation fighter and, I’m just going to be very blunt, I do not see him serving his people well,” Mr. Obama said on Aug. 3, during a meeting with young African leaders in Washington. In early August, US Ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray and other diplomats walked out of an event after Mugabe attacked the US and other Western countries for imposing targeted economic sanctions against senior Zimbabwean leaders in Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.

*The identity of this correspondent is withheld because of continuing security threats against journalists in Zimbabwe.

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