Time for Accountability in Zimbabwe?

October 11, 2009

Jestina Mukoko

Over the past thirty years, tens of thousands of Zimbabweans have died, faced torture, or been assaulted at the hands of the State. Yet the legal system has refused to hold the perpetrators of these human rights violations accountable. That is, perhaps, until now.

Justina Mukoko, Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, spent ten years documenting such incidents of state-sanctioned violence. On December 13, 2008, she was kidnapped by persons then unknown from her home. She spent almost three weeks in incommunicado detention, enduring long rounds of interrogation punctuated by beatings on the soles of her feet. The purpose of her torture: force an admission she had recruited fellow Zimbabweans for military training in Botswana in order to overthrow Zimbabwe’s government.

The lie that justified her detention might have stood if not for Mukoko and her lawyers. As she went to trial, her attorneys filed a motion before the Supreme Court contending that her arrest, torture, and detention denied her basic rights under Zimbabwe’s Constitution. Further, habeas corpus petitions forced State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa to admit in court that she had been illegally abducted by state agents acting under his direct orders.

On September 28th, the Supreme Court handed down a shocking decision. The justices unanimously ordered the government to drop all charges against Mukoko, ruling that the state’s unlawful abduction, use of torture, and prolonged covert detention was so lawless and reckless that justice demanded that the state drop all charges against her.

For Justina Mukoko, this ruling was not enough, as the individuals who mistreated her remained unpunished. Less than a week later, she filed a $500 million civil suit against her tormentors: Mutasa, Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri, and several police officers and members of the Central Intelligence Organisation. Her lawyers may soon add her actual torturers to the list.

It will take years for the politicized judiciary in Zimbabwe to become an independent and objective enforcer of the rule of law. Justina Mukoko, after coming back from the black hole of a Zimbabwe prison, had a tenacity and courage that forced even the justices on Zimbabwe’s highest court to try to reign in President Robert Mugabe’s torturers. If her case is a sign of growing judicial independence, and if individual security agents will be held accountable for their brutality, Zimbabwe may yet start to move toward justice for those human rights defenders who have suffered, like Mukoko, so terribly much for so unmercifully long.

By Rowly Brucken, AIUSA Zimbabwe Country Specialist