via Dzamara 6 months on: Colleagues speak – New Zimbabwe 13/09/2015
MANY political activists have disappeared in Zimbabwe since the abduction of Edison Sithole and his secretary during the liberation struggle. The trend continued in independent Zimbabwe. Many victims, like Sithole and his secretary, have not been accounted for while others were later found either dead or alive. The latest case is that of journalist cum human rights activist Itai Dzamara who has not been seen since he was abducted by suspected state agents on March 9. Six months on, Newzimbabwe.com (NZ)’s Sechaba Lunkunku speaks to relevant activists on the issue.
Kumbirai Mafunda (KM) is a veteran journalist and is the information officer at the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
NZ: It’s been six months since Dzamara disappeared. As a journalist who also knew or knows him how does it feel? What is the mood within the fraternity?
KM: The disappearance of Itai has been terrifying and has instilled fear among his friends, family, journalists and other human rights defenders.
NZ: I know you worked with him. What kind of a journalist and a man is he?
Itai is a brilliant media practitioner. His work speaks for itself from the days he joined us at the Standard and the days he was at the Zimbabwe Independent. Also, remember that he later established his publication, News Leader. He was passionate about his job and he made a great contribution to the society through the power of the pen.
NZ: We hear you are in touch with his family. What is their collective feeling? Especially the kids and the wife and or his parents?
KM: It’s an agonizing and distressing moment for the Dzamara family. On a daily basis, I worry for Itai’s family particularly his children Nokutenda and Nenyasha. They deserve to be with their father and not to be subjected to this unbearable pain that they are enduring. Their father did not commit any crime to deserve such barbaric treatment. I am pleading with the conscience of the people who abducted Itai to release him and let him re-unite with his children and family who badly need him.
NZ: You are also in the human rights movement. What space do you think Itai s fate occupies now in the debate around the Zim crisis?
KM: The abduction and enforced disappearance of Itai and failure by the authorities to account for his whereabouts has proven that Zimbabweans particularly human rights defenders are not safe in this country. The abduction and disappearance of Itai in broad daylight and the government’s failure to account for his whereabouts despite the court orders has shown that the authorities disregard the law and citizen’s rights. Nobody is safe in this country. Anything can happen to anyone and it will be business as usual as if nothing happened.
We also spoke Jestina Mukoko (JM), a director at the Zimbabwe Peace Project. Below are her thoughts.
NZ: Jestina, it’s now six months since Dzamara disappeared and yet there is still no sign of him. What does it mean to you? What are your fears and what are your hopes?
JM: It is a concern for most in civil society but more specifically for someone like me who has had the same experience. This whole scenario means that citizens of Zimbabwe are not safe and yet the Constitution guarantees the right to personal security in section 52 and the right to personal liberty in section 49.
When the abduction happened it rekindled my experience and for a long time I lived in fear. I relived my experience as the days piled since Dzamara’s disappearance. Furthermore, my experience also taught me that a person can take torture both physically and psychologically only to a certain extent and no one should be subjected to such treatment for such a long time.
I remain hopeful and pray that Dzamara will be returned to his family alive and well. I have been disturbed by suggestions that Dzamara could have stage managed his own disappearance and the fact that he could have crossed the border and decided not to be in touch with his family. The courts had in the initial stages ruled that the police had to search for Dzamara but from what we hear from the lawyers their reports have not been helpful.
NZ: As you have said and as we know, you were once abducted yourself and remained unseen for some time. How does it feel to be in that situation?
JM: It is the most frightening situation to be away from home and unaccounted for by family and friends who as every day passes by are not sure if you are still alive or not. The abductors act as people who are above the law and that point is made clear from the onset.
Being kept in solitary confinement is inhuman and I think if it is done over a very long period the affected person can lose their mind. The fact that you can be physically tortured and disoriented by being driven from one detention centre to another in blindfold is degrading. The worry about your loved ones who have no clue about your whereabouts is something that will keep you awake for days on end. For me, the worst was the drive from my home to an unknown destination when I did not know the people who had snatched me and the reason why they had to abduct me. You are powerless and everything around you is determined by people who declare that they are not bound by any laws. Worst of all, you are never certain of what is in store for you. I was always unsettled by being among some people that I could not see as I had to be blindfolded if I had to be shuttled from one detention centre to another.
NZ: Do you see any similarities between your own abduction and that of Dzamara?
JM: The similarities that exist are in the way that the police denied knowledge of my whereabouts in the same way that they have denied knowledge of Dzamara’s whereabouts. Missing person adverts were posted and there was written confirmation that those who had abducted me would be charged.
A huge reward has been offered for information to find Dzamara but I am still to be convinced of the sincerity of these steps. In my case when I was eventually handed over to the police on December 22, 2008 I was in blindfold and had to confirm my details with the attending police officer in that state. The police did not apprehend those who handed me over to them; rather they instructed the police station which was to be my home for two nights neither to allow my family nor my lawyers to visit me in cells. What concerns me a lot is that families are made to suffer as they try to find their loved ones. On my return my family narrated what they had to go through, the sleepless nights and the continued speculation from Zimbabweans that I might have been killed. My heart goes out to the Dzamara family as I see them struggle to come to terms with the disappearance of their loved one.
NZ: Of course you were finally released. But Dzamara hasn’t been found. Do you think this means Dzamara’s issue signals a new danger for the activists?
JM: After 2008 and the waves that took place then, I thought we had seen the last of abductions but obviously I was wrong. It is my hope that those who have done this should realise that it is unconstitutional to abduct, to torture and to prevent a citizen from being protected by the law. It is also my hope that if activists commit a crime they should be arrested according to the law of the land and be accorded all the rights that go with being arrested. When I was released incommunicado I had this serious case hanging over my head and for several months I was in and out of court until the Supreme Court which sat as the Constitutional court in June 2009 to consider the constitutionality of my abduction, torture and the fact that as a citizen of Zimbabwe I was not protected by the law, ruled that my rights according to sections 13(1), 15(1) and 18(1) had been violated by the state through its agents. What this means is that citizens including activists are not safe.
NZ: The EU is at the forefront, calling for his release. What is lined up to put more pressure from the civil society’ side?
JM: I am not aware of any upcoming activities from civil society but we continue to appeal to those holding Dzamara to facilitate his safe return.
Dewa Mavhinga (DM), a senior researcher with the Human Rights Watch, also found time to answer our questions.
NZ: What space did Dzamara, before his abduction, occupy in the crusade for democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe? Did he or does he represent any hope and or future?
DM: Post July 2013 elections in which Zanu PF controversially won a commanding majority in Parliament, there was a general sense of fatigue among civil society and opposition activists, many who seemed to have resigned to a Zanu PF leadership until 2018.
It was in this context that Itai came on the scene in late 2014 seeking to reinvigorate action to get Mugabe to step down and keep the spotlight on the poor democracy and human rights record of the Mugabe regime.
With his Occupy Africa Unity Square Movement, he had a small following but his message resonated and his courageous actions were beginning to inspire hope and confidence about change.
Also, the broad media was closely following and reporting on his various activities. Most importantly, what must have unsettled the Zimbabwe authorities, especially in the weeks leading up to his abduction and enforced disappearance on March 9, was that Dzamara was mobilising civil society and different opposition groups to come together for mass protests against economic collapse and democracy decay. Dzamara’s petition against the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was signed by virtually all opposition political parties, and such a unifying figure within the opposition, would represent a huge threat to the authorities.
NZ: Now that that unifying figure is no longer active, what vibes are you getting from the international community with regard his disappearance?
DM: I have engaged them and I know that members of the international community like the European Union and the United States are extremely concerned about Dzamara’s disappearance and they have made it clear to Zimbabwe that they expect the government to thoroughly investigate Dzamara’s disappearance, facilitate his safe return, and bring to justice those responsible for his abduction.
The EU and the US have pointed out in statements that Zimbabwe has legal obligations under its Constitution and international human rights law to protect all its citizens including Itai. Finally, the international community has made it clear that a key pillar of bilateral relations with Zimbabwe is respect for human rights. They are worried that Dzamara’s enforced disappearance may signal the beginning of yet another dark period of widespread human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
NZ: Do you foresee his case determining the course of events at both local and international level?
DM: There is a sense among civil society and opposition political activists in Zimbabwe that Itai’s disappearance cannot be in vain, and he has become an icon of the struggle for democracy and human rights. Dzamara’s name is a galvanizing force locally, and internationally; his case is a thorn in the flesh of Zanu PF, he is keeping the international media spotlight on Zimbabwe. Solidarity prayer rallies for Dzamara are attracting thousands of ordinary Zimbabweans led by an array of political and civil society leaders. Far from stopping his cause, the abduction has actually raised and catapulted little known Dzamara to an international icon that everyone now talks about in the context of the struggle for freedom of expression and association.
NZ: Some fear that time is running out because if a new Zanu PF leader whom the West favours comes into power the Dzamara issue will be forgotten about.
DM: Yes, time is running out for Dzamara because each minute that passes while he is disappeared and outside the protection of the law increases chances of serious violations of his rights. But as civil society we will not allow the world to forget Dzamara’s case. We will not let Dzamara’s abduction add to the number of unresolved disappearance cases in Zimbabwe. We will not let the Zimbabwe authorities rest until the Dzamara case is resolved and those responsible for his abduction have been brought to justice. I am certain that opposition political parties, including those emerging now, will not let Dzamara down.
NZ: Why, in your view, are the police seemingly reluctant to thoroughly investigate Dzamara’s disappearance?
DM: It is clear that the police are not doing enough to investigate Dzamara’s disappearance; in fact it had to take a High Court Order to compel the police to investigate and provide the court with progress reports every two weeks. But even then, it does not appear that there is any thorough investigation taking place because ZRP leadership is highly partisan and extremely politicised and their attitude to cases they perceive to be political is one of indifference. We have documented this attitude around 2008 elections where over 200 MDC party supporters were killed in political violence and the police simply folded their hands saying they could not deal with political cases. I believe Zimbabwe has a properly equipped and able police force which, if it sets aside partisan political considerations, would be able to effectively investigate and resolve the Dzamara case.
NZ: If the police cannot, or are unwilling to investigate the Dzamara case what can be done?
DM: As Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International we have written a letter to President Mugabe requesting him to set up a Judge-led Independent National Commission of Enquiry into Dzamara’s disappearance which must make its findings public. Dzamara’s family should also approach the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission led by Chairperson Mugwadi to investigate this case. Additionally, civil society groups and well-wishers can support Dzamara’s family to hire private investigators to assist in finding out what happened to Itai Dzamara. His family has a right to know Dzamara’s fate.
NZ: Mr Mavhinga, thank you very much.
DM: Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this important issue.