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US Lawmakers Criticize Repression, Democratic Setbacks in Zimbabwe

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized the government of Zimbabwe, and President Robert Mugabe, as they examined the situation in the country during a congressional hearing.

Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis, as well as setbacks to civil liberties and human rights, have been the subject of intense concern in Congress.

Thursday's hearing provided another opportunity for lawmakers to voice their views about what many believe to be a worsening situation.

Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Human Rights, began with this observation about Zimbabwe's long-serving President Mugabe.

"Robert Mugabe was a hero to his people and his fellow Africans for successfully standing up to racism and oppression," he said. "More than two decades later however, he has so tarnished his image that it now must resemble the fictional portrait of Dorian Gray showing an increasingly repugnant picture of a hero who has gone astray."

Donald Payne, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, says developments in Zimbabwe have gone from great potential for good governance and rule of law in the years following independence to today's conditions of autocratic rule.

He questions whether an approach of isolating Zimbabwe through sanctions and other steps has produced results.

"I think our policy and the policy of international communities to isolate the government of Zimbabwe, as we can see, has not worked," he noted. "President Mugabe's behavior over the past few years has been deplorable."

Mr. Payne says the United States with help from members of the African Union, should continue to engage and press President Mugabe to change direction.

Constance Berry Newman, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, repeats the U.S. view that the March parliamentary election in Zimbabwe was neither free nor fair, and lists the likely effects.

"The result is a parliament that will continue to do the bidding of Robert Mugabe and will not speak for all of the people of Zimbabwe," she explained. "This means the challenges of unemployment, food prices, refugees, limited investment, failure to address HIV/AIDS will continue. Worst of all, Zimbabwe through this period may be on the brink of another food emergency."

Greg Mills, former head of the South African Institute of International Affairs, believes President Mugabe aims to create a facade of stability while moving to further strengthen his hold.

Among steps the international community could take, Mr. Mills says, strategic engagement by the United States, South Africa and other African Union members, has the best chance of having some impact.

"This will crucially have to involve placing on the table an attractive recovery package for Zimbabwe, including on [the issue of] land, and be conditional on political reform, as well as an exit strategy for Mugabe," he said. "This may usefully involve also the appointment of a U.S. special envoy for Zimbabwe."

President Mugabe rejected recent criticisms of the election results, saying his government does not need what he called Anglo-American validation and indicating Zimbabwe would look to China and other countries for help.

China has provided jet aircraft, trucks, and equipment the government used to jam an independent radio station during the election.

During Thursday's hearing, Congressman Smith questioned such spending which he said appears to have come at the expense of humanitarian and other critical needs.