HARARE, Zimbabwe —After more than a decade of European Union sanctions against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s regime, the Harare government is preparing a new push to get them lifted.
Mugabe, 88 and in power for 32 years, has been in the news recently over reports that he was on his deathbed in Singapore. Now that he has returned to Harare in apparent good health, the campaign to end the EU measures is one of the many items on his agenda.
At first glance the EU sanctions seem small: a travel ban on Mugabe and some 100 members of his ruling circle, and a freeze on all their bank accounts and assets in Europe.
The EU sanctions specifically target Mugabe and his inner circle, but they have wider implications, as they convinced individual European states to stop development aid to Zimbabwe.
The World Bank, the IMF and the US have halted their aid, too. Mugabe and his ruling party, Zanu-PF, want the resumption of that aid to pay for popular development projects. They also want to be able to proclaim in the upcoming election campaign that they won against the colonialist European powers by convincing them to drop the sanctions.
The EU removed the travel bans on Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi to allow them to visit Brussels for talks. The two plan to submit a petition against sanctions to the European Union headquarters in Brussels later this month, according to local reports.
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The document is not new. It has been lying around on the shelves in Zimbabwe's Ministry of Media for most of last year. It has 2.5 million signatures and is being scanned for transmission to Europe, but is still open to latecomers, according to Zanu-PF.
The sanctions date back to 2002 when EU election observer mission head Pierre Schori declared the presidential poll flawed. Mugabe booted him out of the country, and the EU followed with the sanctions.
Since then Mugabe has portrayed the penalties as British revenge for his seizure of white-owned farms. The EU insists the measures are the consequence of Mugabe’s political violence, human-rights abuses and electoral manipulation.
Mugabe frequently and loudly blames the prohibitions for Zimbabwe's economic problems, including high unemployment, estimated at more than 80 percent.
Now it appears the EU is easing its stance.
Earlier this year, EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton said that Zimbabwe’s power-sharing government, in which Mugabe rules with former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister, has brought some improvements to Zimbabwe.
To press the case, Zimbabwe's Attorney-General Johannes Tomana, a partisan of Mugabe, recently said he is preparing to file litigation papers to get the European Court of Justice to remove the sanctions.
But even as Zimbabwe’s government argues to the EU that it is reforming its ways, the country’s police chief, Augustine Chihuri, is stepping up pressure on civil society. He warned activists recently against emulating the Arab Spring.
“The Zimbabwe police and indeed all right-thinking Zimbabweans would not want to be part of this rebellion. Rebellion is a sign of witchcraft,” he declared, according to the state-owned Herald newspaper.
Chihuri reminded Zimbabweans that anyone caught plotting to unseat the government through mass protests would be dealt with “to the full extent of the law.”
He referred to the court case in which six people, including university professor Munyaradzi Gwisai, were found guilty last month of conspiring to commit public violence for watching videos of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Although the six received relatively lenient sentences of community service, the fact that they were jailed, tried and convicted for watching general news videos should be ample proof that the Mugabe regime remains repressive, according to human-rights workers.
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According to the agreement that created the coalition government between Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, the government is committed to working with the police and other law enforcement agencies to promote freedom of assembly and other basic rights.
But that has not happened, according to human-rights defenders, who say that police continue to harass opposition politicians, journalists and human-rights activists.
Mugabe’s envoys may argue loudly in Brussels for the removal of sanctions, but EU diplomats in Harare say they are well aware that considerable work must be done to allow for free and fair elections, and that is what the sanctions are all about.
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