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Abductions Prompt Fears of New Crackdown

Rights groups believe ZANU-PF is behind a spate of recent kidnappings.
By Chipo Sithole
A series of abductions has stoked fears of a renewed crackdown by President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF on the opposition and government critics.

In the latest incidents, Gandhi Mudzingwa, a personal aide to Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, was abducted by nine gunmen in broad daylight on December 8. Mudzingwa was seized from a shopping centre in the poor Harare suburb of Msasa. The kidnappers made their escape in six vehicles with no number plates. Mudzingwa whereabouts remains unknown.

On the same day that Mudzingwa was taken, six men raided the offices of rights group Zimbabwe Peace Project, ZPP, in Mount Pleasant in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. There, they seized two workers – Pascal Gonzo, a driver and Broderick Takawira, the national coordinator who runs the agency's operations.

“The gun-toting goon squad burst into our offices and took them with them at gunpoint,” a ZPP official told IWPR. “We saw their faces, but we do not know who the kidnappers were and where [Gonzo and Takawira] are held now.”

The raid and kidnapping of ZPP activists came as calls for the release of the rights agency's head, Jestina Mukoko, abducted from her home over a week ago, were intensifying.

Mukoko, a TV journalist who was a newsreader for the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation before joining the ZPP, was kidnapped in the early morning hours of December 3 from her home in the small town of Norton, 50 kilometres west of Harare.

Under Mukoko’s leadership, the ZPP has played a crucial role in monitoring and documenting politically-motivated violence in Zimbabwe, building an archive of evidence that could be crucial in prosecuting perpetrators of human rights abuses in the future.

Another abduction was reported in Masvingo where Zacharia Nkomo, brother of leading human rights lawyer Harrison Nkomo, was seized by gunmen on December 5.

There are rising fears that the “disappeared” may have been killed by Zimbabwe's security forces, in a repeat of the violence that marred the run-up to the June 27 run-off vote, following Mugabe's loss in presidential elections held in March.

Grassroots opposition activists have, in particular, been targeted and many claim to have been beaten and tortured.

The number of disappeared among the opposition is rising each day.

Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, has petitioned the attorney general’s office, seeking the urgent release of 15 activists held incommunicado for more than a month now.

The 15 were seized at their homes in the farming town of Banket and have been illegally detained despite a High Court order issued on November 11 ordering their urgent release or their appearance in court.

“The MDC, through its lawyers, have made it clear to the [attorney general’s] office that the continued illegal detention of the MDC activists is a clear violation of the Global Political Agreement signed in Harare on September 15, 2008, and the party will call for the intervention of [Southern African Development Community] and the [African Union], the guarantors of that agreement,” said MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa.

The power-sharing deal between Mugabe and the two factions of the MDC contains a clause which states that all parties agreed to work together to ensure the security of persons and property; to ensure the safety of any displaced persons; their safe return home and their full protection under the law.

Chamisa said the failure either to release the people that are being held or to explain why they are being held was a violation of the agreement. “The MDC believes that ZANU-PF's latest act of insincerity is a major threat to the dialogue process,” he said.

Armed gangs believed loyal to Mugabe are reported to have carried out dozens of kidnappings in recent days, often targeting either MDC activists or Zimbabweans working with international human rights organisations.

The opposition is reporting more and more abductions daily, as well as disappearances and torture allegedly committed by the country’s security forces. The MDC also reports that the number of refugees fleeing to South Africa from Zimbabwe continues to rise.

Local civil society groups are appealing to the United Nations to investigate the many allegations of rights violations emerging as talks to form a new unity government flounder.

Fambai Ngirande, spokesman for the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, said that the groups had called on the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, to send a fact-finding team to Zimbabwe to examine the growing number of reports of rights violations allegedly committed by the government and the security forces.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, ZLHR, said in a statement that it was “greatly disturbed by the escalating phenomenon of enforced disappearance of political party members [and] civil rights activists”.

“[Victims had been] abducted, severely tortured and in a growing number of cases, extra-judicially executed, with the corpses dumped usually in remote areas,” continued the statement.

Human rights agencies report that except for a tiny minority of cases, victims questioned have charged that militias of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, police, soldiers or state secret agents carried out the attacks.

“Regrettably, the silence of the authorities in the face of such atrocities can only be perceived by all reasonable persons as acquiescence and a fuelling of impunity,” said ZLHR head Irene Petras.

According to the international new broadcaster CNN, a government spokesman has dismissed claims that it has been behind abductions, claiming the MDC was fabricating the kidnapping reports to get western media attention.

Late last week, the authorities specifically denied complicity in the abduction of Mukoko in affidavits opposing an urgent application lodged in court by the ZLHR. High Court judge Anne-Marie Gowora then ordered police to assist with the search for the activist.

Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR reporter in Zimbabwe.

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