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Tsvangirai Fails to Deliver on Prisoner Pledge

MDC political activists remain behind bars despite new premier’s vow not to take up office until they are released.
By Jabu Shoko
The continued incarceration of political prisoners has cast a shadow over the inauguration of Zimbabwe's new prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, amid reports that some of the inmates need urgent medical care.



About 30 Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, officials and activists are presently languishing at the notorious Chikurubi prison, about 15 kilometres from Harare’s central business district. They have been charged variously with attempting to either destabilise the government or oust President Robert Mugabe.



The authorities have defied several court orders obtained by the prisoners’ lawyers to release them for medical treatment.



According to medical reports from the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, ZADHR, the health of the bulk of the inmates has greatly deteriorated and most urgently need to be hospitalised. Among the political prisoners is a 72-year old man, Fedilis Chiramba, who has been incarcerated for more than 100 days, and Jestina Mukoko, a former journalist and the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project.



During Tsvangirai’s swearing-in on February 11, Harare magistrate Gloria Takundwa ruled that Mukoko should be treated at a fully equipped and functional hospital. The ruling came after her lawyers produced affidavits that she was in dire need of medical attention.



When his party resolved on January 30 to join a government of national unity led by Mugabe, as per the recommendations of leaders of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, Tsvangirai said he would not agree to be sworn in as premier before all political prisoners were released.



But the prisoners were still in detention when he was sworn in, much to the anger of civil society organisations and MDC supporters.



At his inauguration ceremony in front of more than 30,000 people, Tsvangirai was at pains to assure the party faithful that the political prisoners would be released within a few days.



"We have not ignored them," he told the crowd. "I remain very unhappy that the political prisoners are not with us today. It was my wish that they be here with us celebrating this day, which coincides with the [anniversary of the] release of former South African president Nelson Mandela," said Tsvangirai, in reference to the day when Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison in 1990.



"I make this commitment that all the political prisoners will not stay any day longer. As prime minister, I make an undertaking that they will be released within 24 hours," he said.



But analysts that spoke to IWPR said Tsvangirai should trust Mugabe at his peril.



They said Mugabe had a history of not being sincere in negotiations, citing the case of PF-ZAPU, which forged a unity accord with ZANU in the late 1980s.



Several PF-ZAPU political prisoners died in prison while others were released only years after the power-sharing agreement was signed between Mugabe and the late vice-president Joshua Nkomo.

"There is a precedent of PF-ZAPU," said Useni Sibanda, coordinator of the Christian Alliance of Zimbabwe.



"It is our belief that Tsvangirai should have secured their release before he was sworn in. It is one of the few issues that has tainted his swearing-in. Relatives and friends of the political detainees feel betrayed. Tsvangirai promised that he would talk to Mugabe to have them released but this has not happened. He is celebrating the premiership but other are being bitten by mosquitoes in jail."



Ernest Mudzengi, a political analyst with the National Constitutional Assembly, a non-governmental organisation drumming up support for a new people-drive constitution, concurred.



"The whole debacle makes the power-sharing agreement suspicious," said Mudzengi, adding that most transitions were preceded by the unconditional release of political prisoners. "It has not been the case in Zimbabwe. So we then start wondering if the country is continuing under the old political dispensation."



Irene Petras, director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said, "We believe that the manner in which the political prisoners are being treated is a reflection of the lack of sincerity of politicians in ensuring that the security of all persons in Zimbabwe remains remain paramount."



Douglas Gwatidzo, ZADHR president, stated that "we unreservedly condemn the continued denial of access to adequate medical treatment of persons detained at Chikurubi following their alleged abduction and subsequent torture".



Gwatidzo, a medical doctor in private practice, has personally examined some of the political prisoners. He attended to Chiramba, Kisimusi Dlamini, MDC chief security officer, and Gandhi Mudzingwa, a former personal assistant to Tsvangirai. All three, he said, were found to have serious medical conditions that needed hospitalisation.



According to an affidavit lodged by Chiramba's lawyers in a desperate attempt to secure his release from prison, "he was heavily assaulted and subjected to beatings on the soles of his feet. He was put into a deep freezer, and then removed, had his clothes taken off and hot water poured on his genitals. He was made to parade naked in front of female abductees and his physical build mocked by his captors. He was never given medical treatment for his injuries".



Jabu Shoko is the psuedonym of an IWPR-trained reporter in Zimbabwe.

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