BOSTON – Zimbabwe’s government is locked in crisis over the jailing of opposition leader Roy Bennett.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai vowed he would not attend cabinet meetings with President Robert Mugabe to protest the government’s hounding of Bennett and others. Even though Bennett was released on bail late Friday, Tsvangirai said other issues needed to be resolved before he and his MDC party returned to full cooperation with Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party.
While Tsvangirai stopped short of quitting the government, he warned that if the crisis was not resolved he would call for elections to be held under United Nations supervision.
Although Bennett, one of Tsvangirai’s closest allies, was freed on bail Friday, he must still stand trial on what are widely regarded as trumped-up charges of plotting to violently overthrow Mugabe’s government.
Bennett is wildly popular with black supporters of Tsvangirai and his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). They call the burly Bennett "Pachedu," which in Shona means "one of us." The popularity of a former white farmer infuriates Mugabe.
Tsvangirai and the MDC charge that Mugabe is using his control of the courts and the police to unfairly attack Bennett and others.
For months Tsvangirai has said that Mugabe must revoke the appointment of Attorney-General Johannes Tomana.
“The Attorney-General’s office is being used by Zanu-PF for persecuting and not prosecuting MDC officials,” the MDC said after Bennett’s release. The party charged that the re-jailing and release of Bennett vindicates its position that the case “is 100 percent politics and zero percent law.”
The MDC said that Bennett’s case “is just but one of the several instances where national institutions such as the Attorney General’s office have been abused by Zanu-PF to achieve its political ends. It vindicates the position taken by the national executive that all outstanding issues, including the issue of Attorney-General Johannes Tomana, must be resolved urgently.”
Until then Prime Minister Tsvangirai and the MDC’s other cabinet ministers pledged not to meet in cabinet with Mugabe or his cabinet ministers. The decision places Zimbabwe in a tense constitutional crisis that threatens the unwieldy coalition government.
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“Bennett may have been released from jail but he is still being tried on charges that virtually all independent lawyers say are trumped up,” a Zimbabwean editor in Harare told GlobalPost on condition of anonymity.
“To throw Bennett back in jail was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “Tsvangirai has been at pains to propitiate Mugabe but in return Mugabe has dealt in bad faith and has attacked the MDC at every turn. Tsvangirai is also under pressure to pull out of this government by the rank and file of his party who have seen little benefit from the coalition.”
Tsvangirai said his party would boycott, but not withdraw, from the unity government.
"This is a constitutional crisis. Zanu-PF cannot run government alone constitutionally and legally," said Tsvangirai Friday.
Tsvangirai said his party will not attend cabinet meetings and the prime minister has also boycotted his meetings with Mugabe which take place every Monday.
The relationship between the two parties has been tenuous since the power-sharing government was formed in February. The creation of the coalition government was brokered by the regional Southern African Development Community after a hotly disputed election last year in which Tsvangirai polled more votes than Mugabe in the first round.
“It is our right to disengage from a dishonest and unreliable partner,” Tsvangirai said.
Tsvangirai said his party had many reasons for pulling away from cooperation with Mugabe. He accused Mugabe’s party, Zanu-PF, of selectively using the law as a weapon to punish MDC parliamentarians. Tsvangirai further accused Mugabe of putting 16,000 of his partisan and violent youth militia on the government payroll, and remilitarizing the countryside to launch a terror campaign against MDC supporters.
Mugabe’s record of legal prosecutions does appear skewed. No one has been prosecuted for the murders of some 200 MDC supporters before last year’s presidential runoff. Nor has any state agent been charged for the abduction and torture of the human rights activist Jestina Mukoko. Yet seven MDC members of parliament have been convicted on what Tsvangirai called “shadowy charges,” and others still face prosecution.
Another MDC complaint is the daily barrage of harsh criticism against it by the state-controlled news media, including the country’s only daily newspapers and all television and radio broadcasts.
More evidence of Mugabe’s machinations came from Zimbabwean human rights workers who circulated a memorandum alleging that Zanu-PF agents have forced rural Zimbabweans to attend rallies in which they were threatened with violence if they did not support Mugabe. In one case, the memo reports, villagers were told that their heads would be chopped off if they opposed the version of a new constitution that retains Mugabe’s sweeping executive powers.
Tsvangirai’s charges have been dismissed by Mugabe’s spokesman, Jonathan Moyo, who said the boycott of cabinet meetings is “nonsensical.”
Tsvangirai called on African leaders to press Mugabe to stop his dictatorial ways. He called on the African Union and the Southern African Development Union — guarantors of the power-sharing deal — to pressure Mugabe to treat the MDC fairly. So far, regional leaders have studiously ignored Tsvangirai’s pleas to step in.
The outstanding exception is the Botswanan president, Ian Khama, who has criticized Mugabe as a dictator responsible for gross human rights abuses and a leader who has driven Zimbabwe to economic collapse.
Tomaz Salomao, the Mozambican executive secretary of SADC, has in the past refused to respond to Tsvangirai’s appeals for help, even though the regional organization had pledged to help maintain a fair balance of power in the power-sharing government.
In a separate development, Zimbabwe has invited a U.N. expert on torture to visit later this month, the first time Harare has issued such an invitation to an independent U.N. Human Rights Council expert, the United Nations announced on Friday.
Manfred Nowak, special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, will visit Zimbabwe from Oct. 28 to Nov. 4, according to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Nowak will meet government officials, national human rights institutions and civil society representatives. The Austrian law expert will also inspect prisons and police stations and will present a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Nowak’s report could have far-reaching consequences for Mugabe and his party as human rights groups have extensive documentation of systematic state torture and murder.