|The ZIMBABWE Situation||Our
thoughts and prayers are with Zimbabwe |
- may peace, truth and justice prevail.
IN A woodland park in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second town, a hundred or so black and white people huddled together in the moonlight, as if at a prayer meeting. Men perched on boulders and bowed their heads, women sat on fold-up chairs, a few devotees waved torches. Many wore bandannas, T-shirts or strips of white cloth signifying support for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the opposition party that would almost certainly win the poll if it were allowed to. Posters displayed the party's symbol, an open hand. Burly MDC youths watched out for police. A speaker greeted the group in the local language, Ndebele, then sang out: “A new Zimbabwe!” The crowd shouted back: “A new beginning! Amandla [Power]!” Yet the chances of the MDC guiding Zimbabwe towards that bright new dawn are minimal.
Of parliament's 150 seats, 120 are up for election in single-member, first-past-the-post constituencies; the president, Robert Mugabe, nominates the remaining 30 MPs. Few open-minded people doubt that, if the poll were free and fair, the MDC would romp home. Despite massive intimidation and vote-rigging in the last general election, in 2000, the newly formed party won 57 seats, with 47% of votes cast, against 62 seats for Mr Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF (to give it its full acronym) which officially took 48.6% of the vote. The MDC lodged complaints about alleged vote-rigging in 37 constituencies which ZANU was adjudged to have won; but the courts, heavily influenced by the president and his friends, have failed in the past five years to deal with a single such case.
Two years later, in 2002, the MDC's leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, a trade unionist, would surely have unseated Mr Mugabe in a presidential election, had the police not beaten up opposition voters, blocked people from reaching polling stations, and let officials declare false results. The opposition is particularly popular in the capital, Harare, in larger towns like Bulawayo, and in the country's southern belt. Several years of economic collapse, hunger, corruption, a spiralling AIDS epidemic and chronic misrule mean that ZANU, itself sharply divided, is widely hated.
But there is little prospect of it being ousted soon. “I won't vote, it's useless,” says a street-trader in Bulawayo. “I voted last time, but not now. The old man [Mugabe] will win, whatever we do.” The city's outspoken archbishop, Pius Ncube, thinks most voters have been bludgeoned into passivity by years of violence. “There is no way for change, because of this rigging. It's likely to be more rigged than the last one. They [ZANU] have learnt a lot of tricks. People just pray that Mugabe should die. I pray for that.”
There are fewer reports of violence this time, partly because groups that used to document it have been forced to give up, though some still operate in secret. This week Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, reported less violence than before but said that intimidation and partisan laws give ZANU a huge advantage. It enumerates dozens of recent cases of MDC people being beaten, kidnapped and harassed by police and ZANU thugs. Hundreds of local journalists, it says, were arrested last year. Last week a Bulawayo newspaper reported that 40 people had recently been arrested for unspecified “political crimes”.
Mr Mugabe has evidently put out the word that there should now be less bloodshed. During the last general election, thugs and veterans of the independence war were paid to kill opposition campaigners and to invade and take over the farms of MDC-backers. Now, because he wants to avoid shocking observers from South Africa (even though he is letting in only those he thinks most sympathetic), he is adopting subtler rigging techniques.
All the same, most polling stations will be run by soldiers and party agents responsible for the violence last time round: they will hand out ballot papers and tally the results. And there is still the threat of violent retribution after the poll. “People are very much afraid,” says Archbishop Ncube. “No one in Zimbabwe is willing to sacrifice his life.”
Since last time, constituency boundaries have been gerrymandered. A handful of MDC-held seats in populous urban areas have been abolished and new constituencies demarcated in rural areas where land-hungry peasants are friendlier to ZANU. Some urban seats have been merged with neighbouring rural ones, where voters are more pliable and ballot boxes in remote parts more easily stuffed.
In addition, the smaller number of outside observers will be more stretched to watch every ballot box and monitor the count in 8,000-plus polling stations across the land—a vast increase on the past. This time, the ballot papers will be counted where they have been cast, rather than at central counting places. Moreover, villagers are being told that ZANU agents will know, by looking through the transparent new boxes, who has voted for the MDC.
And ZANU people say bluntly that only their supporters will get government food aid. Farming has collapsed, a drought is now parching the southern half of the country, most aid from outside the country is blocked, and AIDS is rampant. Last month the Johannesburg-based Famine Early Warning System Network, estimated that 5.8m Zimbabweans, in a population of around 11.5m, desperately need food aid—or they could starve. So voting the “wrong way” looks to many of them like a death-sentence.
Furthermore, the ZANU-appointed electoral commission is happy to use an out-of-date voters' roll. This, along with ballot stuffing, could be ZANU's single biggest vote-rigging advantage. A full register has never been disclosed. A partial audit of the roll by the MDC in Bulawayo shows why. Of a sample group of 500 voters, barely half were listed correctly. Nearly a fifth of those named were dead; officials ensure that such “ghosts” are loyal ZANU voters. The South Africa-based Zimbabwe Institute, which advises the MDC, reckons that this probably gives ZANU an 800,000-vote bonus in a voting population of around 5.3m. In addition, the 3m-odd Zimbabweans, most of them very likely MDC backers, who have been driven into exile by economic collapse or government repression, are barred from postal voting.
Few of the observers from abroad seem likely to complain about this patent skulduggery, since most of those let in are from countries whose governments are friendly to Mr Mugabe. The Commonwealth, the European Union and the United States have not been allowed to send observers. Independent-minded African watchers, such as the parliamentary group of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa and South Africa's trade union body, COSATU, have been barred.
South Africa's official observer delegation is the key. Recent comments by President Thabo Mbeki and the leader of his observer mission, Membathisi Mdladlana, the labour minister, suggest they have already made up their minds to declare the election free and fair. The MDC is appalled by Mr Mbeki's partiality, fearing that his team will make much of the quieter mood this time round. Almost all of SADC's 13 member-governments (Mauritius and Botswana are possible exceptions) sound inclined, in a show of regional solidarity, to fall in behind Mr Mbeki.
Hoping to take advantage of the comparative calm, Mr Mugabe has now decided to let in many foreign journalists, after years of excluding nearly all of them, and the MDC and Mr Tsvangirai are being given a few minutes of air time on the state television news (followed, of course, by an hour or so of Mr Mugabe and other ZANU leaders). But Zimbabwe's most independent newspapers, notably the Daily News, remain closed, and ZANU virtually monopolises radio broadcasts.
Mr Mugabe seems determined, this time, to win two-thirds of the seats, so he can then change the constitution. Among other things, he might scrap a provision that requires an election soon after a president steps down. That would make it easier for Mr Mugabe, now 81, to handpick and then impose a successor, probably the new vice-president, Joyce Mujuru, known during the liberation war as Comrade Spill Blood, wife of a former head of the armed forces and defence minister.
It is just conceivable that an MDC majority of votes will be too big even for Mr Mugabe's crooked officials to fiddle away. Or, if the result is rigged as expected, it is possible that demonstrations in Harare will be too big for Mr Mugabe and his soldiers to face down. But that does not seem likely. Mr Tsvangirai and his friends know from experience that Mr Mugabe is not averse to cracking a lot of heads. After being battered by several years of repression, the MDC does not look like having the stomach for a revolution on the streets.
Mark Thomas finds torture for sale on the web
Monday 28th March 2005
The NS uncovered a UK company selling torture equipment worldwide. It was advertising openly on the web - but the government had not even investigated it. By Mark Thomas
The more eagle-eyed among you will have noted that the sale of stun batons from the UK was banned in 1997. You get full marks for legislative awareness if you knew that brokering - that is, acting as a middleman and arranging deals for goods that don't touch UK soil - became illegal without a licence on 1 May last year. Previously, if a UK broker moved guns directly from Thailand to Sudan, say, there was nothing that the UK authorities could do about it.
Now a New Statesman investigation has found a British company selling torture equipment: TLT International, which is run by Tony Lee in south London and sells electro-shock weapons. Last year, I wrote in the 6 December issue of the NS about the company's website, which advertised stun batons and stun guns. "Only by Bulk [sic] purchasing," it said.
What is so bad about stun batons, you might ask, although you would get points deducted if you did. Stun batons, according to Amnesty International, are "the universal tool of the torturer". When used for torture they cause extreme pain while leaving no marks on the body - and they have a habit of ending up discharging shocks in the vicinity of people's genitals.
The Department of Trade and Industry states "that a person may not [without licence] . . . do any act calculated to promote [their] supply or delivery". So merely advertising the batons on a website would be illegal - though there have been no test cases so far for the new brokering legislation.
Lee's website had pictures and brief descriptions of the weapons, which are manufactured in South Korea by Hanseung Electronics Inc. They range from the 18-inch stun baton at 300,000 volts to the mini stun gun, at just over four inches long with 100,000 volts. The website encourages those who are interested to "please make enquiries".
I accepted this polite invitation. Posing as arms buyers, I and a Kurdish colleague from Belgium, Osman Kilic, e-mailed TLTi asking to be put in contact with someone who could provide the batons. The reply was swift.
On 2 December, three days after our initial contact, Lee quoted to provide 500 stun batons at a price of $29.10 each, with an optional holster ($2 extra), which is a disturbingly low price for an electro-shock weapon - although it was not until we had exchanged some 14 e-mails, made four phone calls and had one meeting that Lee wrote that he had "forgotten to mention batteries are not included in all sales". So any torturer getting one for Christmas will have to beg their dad to nip down to the 7-Eleven for a pack of double As.
The stun batons come with a year's warranty on the equipment. This must be a comfort to purchasers, knowing that their statutory and consumer rights are not affected just because they happen to be torturers. Indeed, the stun batons even carry a CE mark, the European Economic Area's Kitemark. Lee is so confident of the quality of the product that he wrote: "The stun baton do not need much persuasions and explanations, it speaks by itself. Once Your [sic] clients buy it they would love it."
Ah! The clients! Where, you might ask, did Lee think he was exporting the electro-shock equipment? The answer is Zimbabwe. We warned him on 3 December that "the client is from Zimbabwe". Asked if he was happy for the goods to go there, he replied: "Yes I will sort it out . . . We will ship directly from Korea." The next day, he quoted the $29.10 price. He was prepared not just to break brokering laws on torture equipment, but to break EU arms sanctions into the bargain.
Lee is hardly an arms dealer of international notoriety, merrily pouring small arms into African conflict zones by the ton. In response to these allegations, he took down the website and said: "I was truly not aware of any legislation or licensing on this products [sic]." However, he did take measures to ensure that the UK authorities remained in the dark. "All shipment documents," he wrote, "will be done directly from Korea but all communications should be done through TLTi." In effect, this meant that there was to be no paper trail of the deal in the UK. At a meeting on 22 December in London, Lee passed over details of his private bank account number in Korea into which we were to pay the money. He would pay the company from that account. So the UK banking authorities wouldn't spot it either. In fact, Lee was quite happy to discuss how we would avoid detection by the UK authorities and even suggested that we sign the deal in Korea to make sure.
Although he described the batons as "personal protection products", he was made well aware that they were for "interrogations". Which shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, as Hanseung Electronics has, according to Lee, exported to a range of countries including Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, none of them noted for their kindly approach to imprisonment. The Amnesty International Report of 2003 states that in Egypt, "torture continued to be systematic and widespread in detention centres throughout the country . . . The most common methods reported were electric shocks."
That list of countries would soon expand if Lee had his way. In an e-mail dated 6 December, he wrote: "I have given a Nigerian company a sole sales agreement in Nigeria and West Africa. A large volume of order over the next three years would be expected soon." In another e-mail, he wrote: "This year  in May and June, I went with two Nigerian officials and two members of the Nigerian company [Ovaltek] for Military kits supply, ie, Stun baton, Stun guns."
Nevertheless, when we put our allegations to him, Lee told us: "I've not made any single transaction or any penny from it. If I knew the relevant rules, I would not have tried . . . I would not do anything illegal . . . Now everything with these items have been removed."
Well, if he didn't make any money, it wasn't, as far as we can see, through lack of trying. The Nigerian authorities might be interested to know that Lee said he didn't think the senators' trip to Korea was an official visit and that "they will get a commission. You know what the system is like in Nigeria."
In the food chain of arms dealers, Lee is a bottom feeder. But if the authorities can't find and prosecute a man who openly advertised what he does on the web, what hope is there of taking on the bigger fish? Quite simply, new Labour cares more about arms sales than arms control. The Defence Export Services Organisation, working out of the Ministry of Defence, exists to promote UK arms sales. It has 161 people servicing deals for Saudi Arabia alone. This is one more than the entire staff of the DTI's Export Control Organisation, which licenses and controls every arms export from Britain. And its 160 staff are due to be cut to 120. In other words, there will soon be 33 per cent more government employees helping sell arms to Saudi Arabia than there are trying to control UK sales of arms across the world.
Until the government take arms control seriously, Lee and his like will continue unchallenged, BAE Systems will remain unprosecuted for alleged bribery and the Ministry of Defence will remain incapable of buying a helicopter that works