Politics of fear

International | Facing the most serious challenge yet to his power, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is turning to scare tactics

Issue: "View from the Axis," March 9, 2002

This is all in much haste as I am expecting to be arrested at any moment," church pastor Derek Carlsen told WORLD from Zimbabwe last week. Militants loyal to President Robert Mugabe threatened Mr. Carlsen with arrest after he wrote an open letter to the president, criticizing his abuse of power leading up to March 9-10 presidential elections.

Facing his most serious challenge in 22 years in office, Mr. Mugabe is proving adept at scare tactics. New security measures allow him to detain opposition political figures. In recent weeks he has used that power against Christian pastors and church members who have made public protests against his government. He has shut out foreign journalists, and independent local newspapers and radio stations have had their facilities attacked.

Three weeks before the elections the European Union withdrew its election monitors and enacted sanctions against Mr. Mugabe. The United States activated sanctions also, prohibiting Mugabe officials from traveling to the United States. But Mr. Mugabe's loyalists have not eased the harassment, stoning vehicles of other election observers, even detaining the leading presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai.

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Police in Harare, the capital, took Mr. Tsvangirai into custody on Feb. 25 for allegedly plotting to assassinate Mr. Mugabe. Videotape obtained in Montreal, they said, showed him meeting with a consultant in December to plot against the president. The grainy tape, shown on state television, carried a time clock that made it clear the tape was heavily edited. The consultant, Ari Ben-Menashe, is wanted in the United States on fraud charges.

Mr. Tsvangirai says he is being framed. He says he met with Mr. Ben-Menashe in an attempt to win foreign publicity for his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). His comments during the meeting, he says, were taken out of context, even rearranged, for the video. "If a crime was committed in December, why wait until three weeks before the election?" he said.

Mr. Mugabe has recruited his own security forces, loyalists often taken from Zimbabwe's ranks of war veterans, to carry out his political agenda. They stormed a stadium where the opposition MDC was holding a rally on Feb. 25 in full view of foreign election observers, attacking opponents with clubs and stones. Later they attacked MDC headquarters, trapping two South African observers inside. These same forces typically precede attacks with threatening phone calls to Mugabe opponents like Mr. Carlsen.

Elsewhere Mr. Mugabe's forces were making good on threats, detaining those who speak out against the president, particularly Christians and opposition leaders.

Among those was David Coltart, a Christian who is also a member of Parliament and leader in the opposition MDC (see "Racial profiling," Feb. 9). Security forces loyal to the president arrested Mr. Coltart and charged him with firing a weapon at police. Mr. Coltart had just returned from New York, where he met with UN officials, other diplomats, and an editor at The New York Times to talk about pressure on opposition figures in Zimbabwe.

Soon after his arrival home in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, he found streets leading to his house barricaded. He secured his family (including a 5-month-old daughter) at a friend's house before returning to his neighborhood. The barricades were gone. But later, plainclothes security forces Mr. Coltart says were not police but part of Mr. Mugabe's own organized militias, returned in three trucks carrying 15 men. They took him into custody and filed charges at the police station alleging that he fired on them.

Mr. Coltart says he does not own a firearm. After a day in jail, Mr. Coltart went before a magistrate who dismissed the charges, along with a request to confiscate Mr. Coltart's passport. But, according to the government-backed press, Mr. Coltart is a "terrorist."

That same day, also in Bulawayo, those forces arrested 11 Christians as they gathered to pray. The local militia, led by detective Martin Matira (who arrested Mr. Coltart), took into custody pastor Noel Scott after he petitioned the government to hold a prayer walk protesting Mr. Mugabe. When 10 others showed up at the central police station to pray with Mr. Scott, they were detained also. They were held for two days before charges of threatening security were dismissed.

"Their real crime was that they dared to pray and worship when the powers that be had refused them permission," said Mr. Carlsen, the activist pastor.

Opposition to Mr. Mugabe crosses demographic lines. Those arrested included 10 men and one woman, representing several church denominations. They are black, white, and mixed race. Mr. Carlsen is a white pastor heading a church that is 90 percent black. Mr. Coltart also is white, representing in Parliament a district that is mostly black.


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