Lewis Goes After Mugabe

Here’s one of those stories that’s simultaneously horrifying and inspiring.  In Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, female political foes are subject to gang rape as punishment for their opposition (there’s no word as to what they do to men).  But Stephen Lewis is on the case.  From The Globe and Mail:

Former United Nations ambassador Stephen Lewis is spearheading an effort to bring to justice perpetrators of politically motivated sexual violence in Zimbabwe, a powerful addition to existing attempts to hold Robert Mugabe’s regime accountable for gross human-rights violations.

AIDS-Free World, an advocacy group founded last year by Mr. Lewis, is quietly collecting the testimony of women who survived gang rapes by leaders in Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, after the Zimbabwean President lost the first round of presidential elections in March.

Over the past week, international human-rights lawyers enlisted by Mr. Lewis collected sworn affidavits from eight women, all of them supporters or organizers for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change who were raped and brutally beaten after elections this past spring.

Each of the women described how her attackers, who openly identified themselves with Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, made clear that she was to be the victim of a systematic policy of punishment because she dared to challenge Mr. Mugabe’s rule.

The stories the women tell are harrowing. “When they were finished with me, I could no longer stand,” said Carol, 39, an MDC supporter from the southwest of Zimbabwe. (The identities of the women have been confirmed by The Globe and Mail but pseudonyms have been used here for their protection.) The ZANU militia men who had detained her made her crawl on her belly to the bored bureaucrat holding a list and sitting nearby, and tick off her name to acknowledge that she had had her punishment. “Mine was the fourth name on the list for that day.” Her name crossed off, they moved on.

This is not the first effort to collect evidence of crimes against humanity committed by the Mugabe regime: Several Zimbabwean human-rights organizations are also working to gather and preserve evidence of state-sponsored human-rights abuses, which have typified the recent years of Mr. Mugabe’s rule but exploded after the Zimbabwean leader lost the first round of the presidential election to the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai, the first open challenge to his authority in 28 years.

But Mr. Lewis’s organization has some advantages. The AIDS-Free World team, which is U.S.-based, can operate much more freely than Zimbabwean lawyers and activists. Plus they have, through Mr. Lewis’s long years as a politician and diplomat, access to resources and to influential people. The lawyers involved are experts in the field, some of whom have prosecuted war crimes and are donating their time.

“We’re in a position to collect durable sworn affidavits that would hold up in any proceeding, so that if we end up somewhere like the International Criminal Court, a defence lawyer will not be able to throw it out,” Mr. Lewis said in a telephone interview from Canada.

“The affidavits bear out that these attacks were directed at the political opposition in a very methodical way – the women chosen were chosen because they were part of the political opposition and the links made to ZANU-PF are unassailable.”

Long concerned about the implosion of Zimbabwe, Mr. Lewis, the former UN special envoy for AIDS in Africa, was horrified to learn last summer from Betty Makoni, a firebrand Zimbabwean human-rights activist with whom he has worked on AIDS issues, about the systematic campaign of gang rape that accompanied the first election and the runoff vote in late June. Mr. Lewis and his co-director and long-time colleague Paula Donovan were soon making calls to try to figure out what they could do – to help victims, but equally important, to try to end the gross impunity with which Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF have operated.

Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai signed a power-sharing deal in September but Mr. Mugabe has refused to relinquish any control of the state. A third of Zimbabweans now face famine, and inflation has spiralled into the billions per cent. The two leaders left another round of power-sharing talks in Johannesburg this weekend without a workable agreement.

AIDS-Free World works with women’s groups in Zimbabwe to identify rape survivors who would take the risky step of giving testimony, and in some cases has helped get them across borders to do so. The group finds doctors to provide them medical care – many of the women still have unhealed wounds five months later, since Zimbabwe’s medical system has entirely ceased to function, and all need HIV tests – and also brings the lawyers who record the testimonies.

A first group of nine women produced affidavits in September with the help of pro bono lawyers from the Toronto firm Blakes; eight more gave their testimony this week. Shonali Shome, an AIDS-Free World lawyer collecting the evidence, said it is “chilling.”

“We’re hearing the same thing over and over, we’re seeing the same patterns in different parts of Zimbabwe: the women tell us about the same words coming out of the perpetrators mouths,” she said. “The language that’s used, the pattern of how they were abducted, it speaks to a hierarchical level of command.” It shows the rapes were both systematic and widespread (Ms. Makoni said she knows of 700 cases), the two criteria for crimes against humanity, Ms. Shome said.

Carol, for example, said she was told repeatedly by the ZANU-PF leader who raped her: “You deserve this, this is your punishment for daring to support the MDC. We have a list and everyone on it like you will get a punishment.”

The AIDS-Free World team is also researching the best route for a prosecution: Zimbabwe has crimes-against-humanity legislation, but its judicial system has been entirely hijacked by the Mugabe regime. The next choice, Ms. Shome said, is prosecution in a neighbouring state, all of which are signatories to the Rome Statute that says crimes against humanity can be prosecuted in another nation when a state cannot or will not take action domestically.

Mr. Lewis and his colleagues are also considering bodies such as the African Court (the judicial wing of the African Union) or the AU’s human-rights commission (although this would not be a criminal prosecution). A final option is the International Criminal Court, although this is unlikely for political reasons.

The women who gathered to give testimony this past week are adamant that they want their individual attackers prosecuted – most can name at least some of those who raped and beat them – but also wish to see senior people in the ZANU-PF leadership, starting with Mr. Mugabe, held accountable. The challenge in such a prosecution, Ms. Donovan acknowledged, is how to prove that the rapes and beatings were not criminal acts, carried out by individuals or rogue ZANU-PF members, but rather part of an orchestrated campaign for which responsibility originated with Mr. Mugabe and a handful of his close advisers.

There’s more here

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