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Activists sue Zimbabwe for $500m

Eight people, including members of the opposition MDC party, sue ministers for alleged torture and wrongful arrest.

The Zimbabwean human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, right, celebrates outside the court in September.
The Zimbabwean human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, right, celebrates outside the court in September.

HARARE // In a dawn raid on her home in Norton, about 40km west of the capital, on December 3, armed security agents abducted Jestina Mukoko, a human rights campaigner, suspecting she was mobilising a coup against Robert Mugabe, the president. For three weeks Ms Mukoko, the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, and eight activists of the Movement for Democratic Change who were arrested separately, were detained at secret locations, where they claim they were tortured. They faced charges of terrorism and banditry.

They were released on bail in March, and since then had been appearing in court to challenge the constitutionality of their arrests. In a fitting end to their ordeal, in September, the Supreme Court threw out the charges, on the basis that their constitutional rights were violated during their arrests and detentions. Buoyed by the acquittal, Ms Mukoko, who was snatched from her bed in pyjamas, and her colleagues have filed a lawsuit seeking US$500 million (Dh1.8 billion) in damages for torture, assault, wrongful arrest and denial of liberty against three ministers, the head of police, Augustine Chihuri, and a senior secret service agent.

"The matter (could) set a precedent that members of the security forces are not immune to prosecution," said Tafadzwa Mugabe, the programmes co-ordinator for the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. "It reinforces the idea that no one is above the law, whatever the outcome of this case." He said it was the biggest claim in Zimbabwe's judicial history in terms of damages sought. Ms Mukoko, a former news reader on state television, is seeking $250m, with her eight colleagues claiming the other half.

Mr Mugabe, a human rights lawyer, said the nine plaintiffs were demanding varying amounts because each was detained for different periods and suffered variously. After their arrest, they maintained their innocence while rights groups and the MDC dismissed the charges as trumped up and politically motivated. "It just did not make sense. I could not believe people could charge me with something like that. I am going home to rest. I thank God for everybody who supported me," Ms Mukoko had said, shedding tears of joy after her acquittal.

In his judgment, the chief justice, Godfrey Chidyausiku said: "The state, through its agents, violated the applicant's constitutional rights to the extent of - entitling the applicant a permanent stay of criminal prosecution." In some quarters, the discharge in such a high-profile case was seen as a victory for the rule of law, but Mr Mugabe said it must not be read as a sign that the courts are gaining independence just yet.

A lawyer, who cannot be named because commenting on the record on the possible outcome of the issue is prejudicial, said he expected Ms Mukoko and her colleagues to win because the Supreme Court had already ruled that they were indeed tortured while in custody. "So it ordinarily follows that she will win. However, I must say that there might be technicalities that can cause its failure," he said. Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe, said if Ms Mukoko's suit were to succeed, it could spawn a flurry of other claims from dozens of political and human rights activists who have been arrested, beaten and tortured in recent years but have not yet sought redress.

"There are hundreds," Mr Masunungure said, "if not thousands of people out there, who are suffering in silence, but Mukoko and her colleagues have the stamina to take their case to another level. The suit will have the effect of emboldening those who were hiding in the shadows in the face of what they saw as a hegemonic state. They will say: 'here is Jestina, who is taking the state by the horns, we will do the same and win'."

Furthermore, Mr Masunungure said, the matter may also discipline the security forces, whom he accused of acting with impunity against perceived opponents of Robert Mugabe, the president. The unity agreement signed in September 2008 by President Mugabe and the opposition MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, highlights the partisan nature of law-enforcement agencies and calls for the police, army and the secret service members to be retrained and taught the importance of upholding human rights, without necessarily abetting lawlessness.

Mr Masunungure acknowledged that Ms Mukoko and the MDC activists are claiming huge amounts of money, but money is incidental to the principle of seeking legal redress. "Another factor that I think is encouraging in this matter is that Mukoko is not just suing the state, but also individuals to be personally liable for the harm they inflicted on her. The import of this is that the time to hide behind the state while committing human rights abuses is gone, or could soon be gone."