Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), is the most prominent among 20 political and civil society activists who have disappeared in the past six weeks.
According to fellow campaigners, Mukoko had established a network of hundreds of monitors – mostly church people, teachers and ordinary township dwellers – who had provided handwritten testimonies of the campaigns of brutality carried out by Mugabe’s government. The testimony could have been used in any future investigation of human rights abuses by the Mugabe regime. ‘She had catalogued thousands of incidents of murder, assault, torture, arson, and who the perpetrators are. The work was so meticulous it could stand up in any court,’ said one associate.
A human rights lawyer revealed that just before Mukoko’s abduction the ZPP had shifted from cataloguing violence in townships to the organised abuse of food aid, where people were forced to support Mugabe in return for maize deliveries. ‘That upcoming report was going to be extremely embarrassing for the ruling party,’ said the lawyer.
Lawyers and opposition politicians believe the abduction of Mukoko was carried out as part of a new campaign by elements in the ruling party to intimidate and hinder the work of those gathering incriminating evidence of human rights violations in the country. Most leading human rights figures have in recent days gone into hiding. The ZPP has closed and the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (Nango) has warned that ‘there are reasons to fear for the safety of every activist in the land’.
At about 5am on 3 December, 15 armed men wearing civilian clothing burst into the home of Mukoko in Norton, 25 miles from the capital, Harare. Her 15-year-old son watched as the men, who claimed to be police officers, beat up a gardener, then bundled her, barefoot and dressed only in her pyjamas, into a waiting Mazda 323.
Within days, other abductions were carried out by groups of between six and nine armed men in civilian clothes using unmarked vehicles without number plates. On 5 December Zacharia Nkomo, 33, brother of leading human rights lawyer Harrison Nkomo, was taken from his home in Masvingo.
Three days later Brodrick Takawira and Pascal Gonzo, both of the ZPP, were abducted in Harare. And on 10 December, Gandhi Mudzwinga, a close associate of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, was kidnapped near Harare.
The ZPP, which was formed in 2000 and is funded by the Dutch and Canadian governments, is one of the most respected groups in Zimbabwean civil society. Its reports have been made available to African and Western embassies in Harare and used in confidential diplomatic briefing documents.
They are likely to have been among documents seen by the European Union before it added 11 military, police and ruling party officials to its latest travel blacklist, made official last Monday.
Lawyer Otto Saki said he and his colleagues have made desperate attempts to establish Mukoko’s whereabouts. ‘We struggled to find a judge to hear our application. Three days after her abduction, a judge we finally managed to speak to in the High Court car park told us it would be heard on Monday, 8 December.
‘A week after she was taken, we obtained an order that the police search for Jestina in all places of detention where they have jurisdiction – in other words, everywhere except military compounds. But we have no news and the police say they do not have her.’
Lawyers say the last time the courts acted so evasively was in April – just after the first round of presidential elections – when Movement for Democratic Change activist Tonderai Ndira was abducted.Ndira was later found murdered.
JB Nkatazo of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace said Mutoko’s abduction sent ‘cold shivers’ down the spines of all Zimbabwean activists. ‘The new disappearances send a clear message to civil society that we will be picked up one by one,’ said Nkatazo.
‘We must fear the worst for Mukoko,’ said Effie Ncube, 35, of the Masakhaneni Projects Trust for victims of violence. ‘If she has been picked up and tortured, that means she also knows who her assailants were.’ Paying tribute to her courage, he said: ‘We last sat together two weeks ago. She understood the nature of the regime and the risks she was taking. She was documenting cases of human rights abuses to liberate Zimbabweans but also to liberate Mugabe. She paraphrased Nelson Mandela who said the South African transition was about liberating the racists.’
He added: ‘What we do is very risky because the regime’s attitude is that we are giving information to the CIA or to MI6. Mugabe’s rhetoric is calculated to set African governments against Europeans, and so we, as civil society, are viewed as agents of Western imperialism.’
One of the greatest fears of Mugabe and those involved in this year’s election-related violence is that the UN Security Council will call for an International Criminal Court investigation, as it did over Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir’s involvement in the Darfur killings.
Statements in the past week by Mugabe and his aides provide clear evidence of the regime’s paranoia. Presidential spokesman George Charamba told the state-run Herald newspaper that Western countries were planning to ‘bring Zimbabwe before the UN Security Council by claiming the cholera epidemic and food shortages have incapacitated the government’.
On Friday, in a bizarre effort to parry criticism of the regime at tomorrow’s meeting in New York, Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said: ‘Gordon Brown must be taken to the United Nations Security Council for being a threat to world peace and planting cholera and anthrax to invade Zimbabwe.’
But Minister for Africa Lord Malloch-Brown said the meeting would focus on the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, especially concerns that UN medical officials have been denied access to the country to assess the cholera outbreak.
‘I don’t see the prospect of an international tribunal coming up tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Mugabe is in a state of exaggerated paranoia. The arrests of the human rights activists are part of that. But it is certainly the case that Mugabe’s actions this year have exposed him as never before. The day he falls he has huge future vulnerability.’