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Zimbabwe's Human Rights Activists Campaign Against President Mugabe - 2003-02-24

Human-rights activists are still upset about the presence of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe at last week's 22nd France-Africa Summit in Paris. But some activists say they hope new international laws against torture will help bring President Mugabe to justice.

British human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and other activists tried, without success, to have President Mugabe arrested on charges of torture last week in Paris. Their tool against the Zimbabwean leader was to be the U-N Convention Against Torture of 1984, which has been incorporated into law by several European nations, including France.

But as Mr. Tatchell told V-O-A last Wednesday, instead of President Mugabe being arrested, it was he and fellow protesters who were sought by the police.

He says, "President Mugabe would be proud of how the French police handled the peaceful protests. There was the same style of repression in Paris that we have seen in Harare, in Bulawayo, and other Zimbabwean cities and towns. There is no right to peacefully protest in Paris during the summit. It is apparent that in the city today human-rights abusers are protected, and human-rights defenders are arrested."

Later, Mr. Tatchell and members of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change party went to the Paris deputy prosecutor's office to file an 80-page deposition. It included affidavits from torture victims, plus reports from Amnesty International and the Danish group Physicians for Human Rights, which said torture was routine in Zimbabwe.

He says, "The deputy prosecutor told us he agreed our submission should be treated as an urgent matter, given that President Mugabe may leave Paris after the Franco-African summit ends, and he gave us his assurance that it would be treated seriously. He felt it was serious and solid submission."

The prosecutor's office did not issue a warrant for Mr. Mugabe's arrest.

Mr. Tatchell has tried twice before in recent years to carry out a citizen's arrest of President Mugabe during trips to Brussels and London. Mr. Tatchell invoked the U-N article against torture and, both times, the authorities failed to support him.

He says the main reason is the argument in legal circles that serving heads of state can not be arrested.

He says, "Either human-rights laws apply to everyone, or they end up being devalued, because the main people abusing human rights are heads of state using the army, police, and intelligence services to persecute, torture, jail, and murder political opponents and dissidents. If these laws do not apply to [them], then let us get rid of the laws. They are useless bits of paper that have no meaning."

This week, Mr. Tatchell's allegations were mirrored in a report by a group of Zimbabwean Church organizations and international human-rights groups. They say that the use of torture is, in their words, "unparalleled" as government supporters try to eliminate opponents.

The groups, which included Amnesty International and the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, warn that the increasing rate of torture could be a harbinger to a Rwandan-style genocide.

But President Mugabe has defenders.

Chinondidyachii Mararike is a London-based lawyer, writer, political analyst, and secretary-general of Davira Mhere, a group devoted to educating the Zimbabwean public about the need for land reform.

He rejects claims by two Zimbabwean opposition members who have given sworn affidavits that the police in Harare told them they were being tortured with President Mugabe's consent.

Mr. Mararike says, "The president does not have anything to do with the arrest of people who are alleged to have committed crimes. We have separate arms of [government]. The commissioner of police...does not receive instruction to investigate people from president's office."

Mr. Mararike also criticized two prior attempts by activist Peter Tatchell to attempt a citizen's arrests against President Mugabe during trips to Europe.

He says, "Heads of state, either from Europe, Africa or southeast Asia, enjoy immunity; they ought to be protected properly in terms of their security when they visit other countries. It is not [appropriate] for Peter Tatchell to try these tactics. If anyone attempted to make a citizens arrest on Tony Blair or on George W. Bush, it would not be accepted. President Mugabe is not guilty of human-rightsv abuses to the extent to what has been put across in the media."

Mr. Mararike says the Zimbabwean government has and will continue to bring to justice supporters of the government or the opposition who resort to violence.

He says, "The aim and policy of ruling party, ZANU P-F, is that allegations are properly investigated because we want to ensure that we run a peaceful country, where there is no break down of law and order."

Activist Peter Tatchell says, as head of state, President Mugabe is not immune to prosecution under Article-27 of the International Criminal Court.

He says, "The only problem is that the standards, evidence, and procedures are so complex, so comprehensive, and so expensive to organize the full documentation, it is not a case I could personally organize myself. But it is a case I could help have initiated by others who do have the resources like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch."

Western leaders may also be getting the message.

French President Jacques Chirac told the 52 gathered leaders at last week's summit that violence must be denounced, and that those who perpetrate it risk the punishment of the International Criminal Court. The days of impunity, he said, when people were able to justify the use of force, are truly over.