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Controversial Veteran Zimbabwe Politician Dies - 2004-08-23

One of Zimbabwe's leading nationalists and a founder of the ruling ZANU-PF party, Eddison Zvobgo, has died at the age of 69, after a long illness. In the last five years of his life, Mr. Zvobgo was critical of the deteriorating human rights record of the party he helped form.

The Harvard-educated lawyer and academic helped form ZANU, as it was then named, in 1963. He was jailed for seven years in 1964 for political activities in what was then Rhodesia. After his release, Mr. Zvobgo played a leading role in the struggle against white rule.

At peace talks in London in 1979, he was the main spokesman for the liberation movement. After independence and the creation of Zimbabwe in 1980, he served as a member of President Robert Mugabe's cabinet for 20 years.

However, he was dropped from ZANU-PF's politburo and the cabinet at the 2000 parliamentary elections, although he remained a legislator until he died.

In interviews in the last few years of his life, Mr. Zvobgo said he had regrets about ZANU-PF and his role, as minister of justice, in crafting a constitutional amendment giving Mr. Mugabe unparalleled power as executive president.

Mr. Zvobgo was the first senior member of ZANU-PF to publicly apologize for atrocities committed by government forces, accused of killing thousands of civilians in the southern Matabeleland province in the 1980s.

Ahead of the last presidential poll in March 2002, Mr. Zvobgo told a South African newspaper that he believed the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, would win the election, and then turn Zimbabwe's fortunes around.

He fell out with some ZANU-PF leaders for what they called "decampaigning", or refusing to support Mr. Mugabe in the 2002 election. Mr. Mugabe won re-election amid widespread claims by international observers of violence and vote-rigging.

Mr. Zvobgo never took the accusations seriously, and said in one interview that those who had talked of firing him from ZANU-PF were merely "small boys."

That same year, he was sharply critical of new laws tightening state controls of the press. He was also accused of holding private talks with the Zimbabwe opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change. An MDC spokesman Monday described Mr. Zvobgo as "a gentleman," who was not afraid to discuss diversity in politics.

Veteran ZANU-PF leaders paid tribute to Mr. Zvobgo in the state-controlled media Monday. Some said he is sure to be named a national hero, an honor usually reserved for black activists who fought against Zimbabwe's former minority white regime.