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Zimbabwe Extends Crackdown on Dissent as Election Looms

Zimbabwe Extends Crackdown on Dissent as Election Looms

December 24, 2004
Zimbabwe Extends Crackdown on Dissent as Election Looms

HARARE, Zimbabwe - A few yards from Raymond Majongwe's office, on the apron of a four-lane highway outside this capital city's downtown, a cherry red sedan sat recently beneath a clutch of trees, its engine off, the driver idle. The sedan has been there for weeks, Mr. Majongwe said. It will be there next week, too.

Mr. Majongwe is the head of a rebel schoolteacher's union. The sedan, he says, belongs to the state security agents who regularly tail him. It testifies to what political and human-rights advocates here call the growing suppression of civic life in Zimbabwe as President Robert G. Mugabe girds for national elections that his government cannot afford to lose.

Mr. Mugabe and the governing Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, came unexpectedly close to being swept from office in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2000 and 2002, and they have taken a series of measures designed to minimize the chances of another competitive ballot.

During the 2002 election the government enacted laws sharply curbing freedoms of the press and public assembly, citing national security. Now, with new national elections looming in March, new laws and other measures promise to silence the remaining independent press and activist groups that have been vehicles for dissent.

In November alone, Zimbabwe's Parliament enacted legislation mandating a two-year prison term for practicing journalism without a license. A second law made it illegal to conduct voter education without government approval, requiring most election workers to register and clear electioneering materials with the state.

A third law, passed in early December, effectively places nongovernmental groups, churches and charities under state control, empowering the government to investigate their finances, to restrict their activities and, in many cases, to disband them at will. A fourth proposal would impose prison sentences of up to 20 years for "materially false" statements or writings that impugn the state.

Earlier this year, the government installed equipment on Zimbabwe's Internet service providers to monitor and censor e-mail messages. In July, it tried to bar the one cellphone company outside state control from routing calls outside the country, saying unsupervised foreign telephone calls were a national security threat.

The company, Econet Wireless, is controlled by a government critic whose opposition newspaper, The Daily News, was far and away the most popular publication in Zimbabwe. The government closed the newspaper in February. In October, it charged five of Econet's directors with illegal dealings in foreign currency.

Such actions, rights advocates here say, are but the latest moves in a long clampdown on Zimbabweans' freedoms that peaked around Mr. Mugabe's re-election in 2002 and then subsided, but is now regaining momentum. After that election, independent observers said that the balloting had been rigged, and that the opposition party would have won a fair election.

Parliamentary documents show that spending on security police officers like the one posted outside Mr. Majongwe's office has run 60 percent over budget this year - and is projected to quadruple in 2005. While it is impossible to verify figures, human rights groups here also claim that the number of government informers and security police has grown sixfold in five years, to as many as one in 60 Zimbabweans.

Similarly, the Solidarity Peace Trust, a group of clerics that monitors human rights in Zimbabwe, reported last month that 300,000 Zimbabweans - roughly one in 40 - have been beaten or tortured, thrown off their land or denied food since violence began to escalate in 2000. Another 300, the trust stated, have died in politically motivated killings.

Like most of the government's domestic critics, these and most other Zimbabweans spoke only on promises of anonymity. The crackdown has silenced most democracy advocates and workers in foreign-based organizations, who now face prosecution or expulsion for publicly differing with the government.

Mr. Mugabe's government rejects charges that it seeks to suppress basic freedoms. Indeed, it charges that the United States' anti-terrorism law, the U.S.A. Patriot Act, is far more intrusive than its new laws, which it says are aimed not at legitimate critics but at enemies of the state. If Westerners scoff at that, the argument has resonated with neighbors like Zambia, which banned a pro-democracy civic group last month on grounds strikingly similar to those in Zimbabwe's new laws.

To an occasional visitor here, the government's critics today are clearly more cautious - and sometimes fearful - than they were even a year ago. But the crackdown's true impact, the government's opponents say, is political. In the 2000 and 2002 elections, the press and civil-society groups were virtually the only conduits for the message of Zimbabwe's sole opposition party of note, the Movement for Democratic Change.

"It's become practically impossible for civic organizations to assemble here," Lovemore Matombo, the president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, part of the coalition behind the Movement for Democratic Change, said in a recent interview here. Like other groups, Mr. Matombo said, the Congress, Zimbabwe's largest labor organization, cannot hold a meeting without first notifying the police.

"Things are deteriorating," Mr. Matombo said. "By closing off the public space, it means they're creating more space for themselves. The government is saying, 'Let's do anything - whatever it takes to win in 2005.' "

National security is the official rationale for these changes. Since Zimbabwe's economy collapsed early this decade, a victim of drought, corruption and the ill-planned seizures of thousands of white-owned farms, Mr. Mugabe has attributed the nation's woes to a Western plot to subvert black authority and reimpose colonial rule. As proof, he cites political sanctions that the United States and Europe have imposed on Zimbabwe to protest its human rights conduct.

That argument underpins the crackdown on the nation's most formidable independent forces, pro-democracy groups and the Movement for Democratic Change, both of which have broad Western support and, often, financing.

The movement's leader and its past presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, has already been tried on treason charges, a two-year process in which he was painted as a tool of the C.I.A. before being acquitted in October. The government said this month that it planned to seek a retrial.

New restrictions on nongovernmental groups enacted this month are aimed squarely at foreign supporters, barring any Zimbabwe organization that deals with human rights or governance issues from receiving foreign money or even enrolling members who live outside Zimbabwe.

In one sense, this fortress-Zimbabwe strategy has been strikingly effective. According to a poll of 1,200 Zimbabweans published in August by South African and American researchers, the level of public trust in Mr. Mugabe's leadership has more than doubled since 1999, to 46 percent - even as the economy has fallen into ruin, between a third and a half of all citizens go hungry and anger over economic and living conditions is pervasive.

Fear of the government led a small number of Zimbabweans to give Mr. Mugabe a good rating, the survey concluded, as did uncertainty that the opposition could run things any better. But the overriding explanation for Mr. Mugabe's high rating was the power of the government's propaganda and the absence of a free press to counter it.

"Zimbabweans are in a position where they actually don't know what's going on," said one political expert here who insisted on anonymity. "They've shut out any competing views, and they're feeding people lies. They've shut things down absolutely brilliantly."

But the flip side of that success, this analyst said, is that the nation's rulers must maintain that tight lid - or even tighten it further - to keep citizens' anger focused on outsiders and not themselves. And human rights organizations here say that other measures, including increasing surveillance and manipulation of the dwindling food supply, are now putting fresh pressure on Zimbabweans to toe the government's line.

Both the United Nations and other foreign specialists warned early this year that Zimbabwe's annual harvest of corn, the staple in almost every meal most Zimbabweans eat, would fall as much as 60 percent short of what was needed to feed the country. The principal reason, they said, was that inflation, recession and mismanagement had left the country desperately short of both seed stocks and inputs like fertilizer that were crucial to a good crop.

In May, however, Mr. Mugabe declared that the harvest was in fact a record one, and ordered the World Food Program to cease most emergency deliveries of food.

Recently, at the office of one foreign-based organization here, an official spread a map of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces on a table, a patchwork of green and yellow blotches. The green areas had adequate grain supplies; the yellow were deprived.

Almost without exception, the yellow areas were either strongholds of the Movement for Democratic Change or areas where the ruling ZANU-PF was guaranteed an easy victory. Most of the government's limited grain stock was being handed out in the electoral battlegrounds.

"Starting in July, they began to pump food into the deficit areas where they expect a struggle in the elections next year," the official said. "Where there has been adequate grain throughout, it's a swing district."

Even there, however, corn supplies remained under tight control. Beginning in August, officials of the state Grain Marketing Board, which controls corn supplies, began refusing to sell grain in rural areas to families that did not have a ZANU-PF card to prove their party loyalty. Families without cards were told to secure a letter from their village administrator, most of whom are ZANU-PF loyalists.

Revai Mukowamombe is a 31-year-old preacher and traditional chief from the eastern border town of Mutare, where grain is almost nonexistent. He said that local ZANU-PF functionaries had banned members of the political opposition from a government program that lends farmers seed corn in exchange for a share of their next harvest.

"People in my area are hungry," he said in a recent conversation. "They need food. And donors are being denied to the area. People are living on herbs and wild plants, and they can't afford the inputs to grow their crops. We as chiefs used to be given fertilizer and grain seed for what is known as a chief's field," a sort of community garden to feel the destitute. "But now we're not even getting those."

Mr. Mukowamombe came to Harare in late November to complain about the use of food as a political weapon. Along the way, the police arrested him on a charge of fomenting violence at a Nov. 7 political rally in Mutare. He was chained to a bench for two days before being released, he said.

It was not his first brush with the law. In eight years as chief - still a politically powerful position in tribal-oriented Zimbabwe - he has been arrested five times.

Nor was it his worst. Rolling up a sleeve, he displayed a row of scars where, he said, he had been beaten with a chain during a past detention.

"People are being forced to support ZANU-PF," Mr. Mukowamombe said. "People are afraid."

"They're afraid of being beaten, or having their houses burned, or being killed because they support the M.D.C.," he said, referring to the opposition party. The argument against resisting, he said, is compelling. "When you live in a rural area, it's remote," he said. "You don't have a phone. You can't run away."

Mr. Mukowamombe says he is resisting anyway, because he believes people should have the right to say what they think, and support whom they choose in March.

"They say, 'I am coming for you. And you are going to disappear,' " he said. "And I tell them, 'If I die, you die. Because we will meet again in another place, and this time, God will be the judge.' "

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company