It’s hard to keep track of all the bad, sad and infuriating news from Zimbabwe. While most international reporting has focused on a cholera outbreak, the failure to form a power-sharing government, continued crippling inflation, and now the prospect of a dollarized economy (see Mukoma.com for more on all these stories), the activist community has been focused on Jestina Mukoko and fellow activists facing charges of conspiring to overthrow the government.
Mukoko is an activist, journalist and the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project. She was abducted from her house, west of Harare, on December 3rd – most speculated that she’d been seized by the secret police. (Abduction of MDC supporters and anti-government activists is becoming more common, with MDC reporting 11 activists abducted last year, and no sign of their whereabouts.) Mukoko resurfaced on December 24, 2008, facing charges in a Harare court of recruiting people to receive military training to overthrow the government. She and eight others are currently being held at Chikurubi maximum security prison.
Sokwanele has a detailed timeline of the procedural back and forth lawyers have been engaged with to visit their clients and ensure they’re recieving representation. This has been Sokwanele’s great strength, documenting in careful detail violations of Zimbabwean law, around elections and now around court cases. Indeed, careful documentation may be why Mukoko has been targetted – Denford Magora (Global Voices’ correspondent for Zimbabwe) notes that Mukoko’s organizaion was documenting the abduction and killing of activists, the misuse of food aid and other violations of national and international law. Her abduction, he argues, was initially to get her out of the way. Now the motive may be to force her to testify against Morgan Tsvangarai, implicating the opposition leader in the “crimes” her group is accused of.
Mukoko and the other activists are being charged with a string of bombings on train lines and police stations. Other activists have been tried for these crimes, and found not guilty – the decision to charge this new crew with the crimes looks like an attempt to recycle the charges. More seriously, the charges of recruiting fighters to topple the government are charges of treason, which carries a death sentence.
It’s impossible to know for certain what’s happening inside Chikurubi prison, but the reports are shocking. The Sunday Independent of South Africa reported that Mukoko has been beaten and is being force-fed drugs. The army doctor who has prescribed the drugs says they are to treat “anxiety and insomnia”, while Mukoko’s lawyers argue that the doctor is overseeing her torture and the drugs forced on her are poisoning her.
Perhaps the most surreal, heartbreaking and unacceptable detail of the story concerns Nigel Mupfuranhehwe, the two-year-old son of Violet Mupfuranhehwe and Collen Mutamagau. The two parents and the toddler were abducted, and Nigel is being held with his mother, Violet, in the solitary confinement ward of Chikurubi prison. The Independent reports that activists have told their lawyer that the two year old child was beaten by security forces and needed medical attention.
Let’s just pause for a moment and give security forces all possible benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that the seven adults in custody were, in fact, recruiting a guerilla army to overthrow Mugabe’s government. It’s insane and inhuman to imprison a two year old child in a maximum security facility. If, as Magora speculates, the child has been beaten in front of his mother to prompt a confession, it’s beyond my ability to find words to document the barbarity.
Denford Magora is asking for comments on his blog post about Nigel Mupfuranhehwe to serve as a petition, though it’s not entirely clear who the petition would be presented to. There’s a campaign on Facebook to free Mukuko and, one assumes, those held with her. Amnesty International is organizing a campaign to free Mukuko.
It’s hard for me to say with any confidence that any of the efforts above will lead to the activists’ release. The current Zimbabwe government has proved extremely resilient in the face of international criticism. But if a government can’t be pressured into releasing a two-year old, I’m not sure if it can be pressured to do anything.