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Editor’s Memo

Dirty hands

VIDEO footage from Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib jail of Iraqi prisoners of war being allegedly tortured by American soldiers has provided good copy for the hypocrites among us. It exposes the

full depravity of the Bush administration and Tony Blair’s Labour government, we have been told ad nauseam.

In fact, George Bush and Blair have behaved worse than Adolf Hitler during World War 1, the Herald declared on Wednesday in its comment.

We have seen the pictures. Pretty nasty. But we have no reason whatsoever to be voyeuristically fascinated by them. The reason is simple. We saw many pictures of torture victims in this country in the past two elections. Less grotesque, less perverse and perhaps less pervasive too, but chilling. Such images make you lose faith in man’s ability to rise above the primeval brute or the Biblical “created in God’s own image” teaching. The video images we saw on ZBH’s Newsnet and the pictures of torture victims we published during electoral campaigns in 2000 and 2002 go beyond human rights violations. They reveal in the perpetrator a debased soul, a soul so far corroded by wickedness it is incapable of moral stirrings.

Needless to say in the case of Zimbabwe’s horror story, no state media carried a single picture. No journalistic curiosity to probe allegations about the existence of a torture camp at Texas Ranch outside Zvishavane. People like Biggie Chitoro conducted a scorched-earth policy as little Zanu PF warlords in Mberengwa. We were called unpatriotic for publishing the pictures. Now we see state media rushing with indecent gusto to make sure even my mother in the rural areas knows about a little hell called Baghdad. She has real life stories of her own!

Unfortunately what is emerging from the suitably manipulated comments in the state media is that they are not inspired by moral outrage at what is happening in Iraq. They are more than populist solidarity comments of poor nations against imperialist domination and abuses. The aim is more insidious.

The point about this Hosanna-save-us noise is to paint the United States and Britain in such grievously bad light it will take them a long time to regain the moral courage to condemn human rights violations elsewhere. There will be noone to wash their dirty hands clean. The epicentre of the hysteria is our own forthcoming parliamentary election. Attacks on opposition supporters are already on the increase. In the Zengeza by-election there was a fatal shooting. Although it is said that evil thrives under cover of darkness, here we have so lost all sense shame that killing for political office is done in broad daylight in an urban constituency.

When those gory pictures were first broadcast we had no illusions about their worth. It was capital delivered on a silver platter. Suddenly Western media had to be believed. This was no longer the same propaganda as the BBC’s Panorama documentary on Zimbabwe’s youth training camps. Here was evidence enough to nail these human rights hypocrites forever so that they don’t bother us when we set up our traditional reorientation centres ahead of the election.

President Thabo Mbeki can be trusted not to see, hear or say anything. After all he knows of no one who has died of Aids in his own country.

The Iraq atrocities have provided a moral armour for election strategists in Zimbabwe and set a human rights benchmark not too difficult to match even by the vicious and capricious standards of Gaius Caligula.

The idea behind the Iraq prison pictures is to mask the difference between sadistic abuse of prisoners of war by soldiers on the one hand, and human rights violations by government on the other, which always have a political motive and context. State media have tried to fudge what is happening in Iraq prisons. But the distinction is as clear as day and night.

What Zimbabweans are fighting for is more democratic space that is shrinking daily because of a denial of our basic human rights through political instruments such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act and the monopoly enjoyed by Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings under the Broadcasting Services Act, not occasional aberrations by overzealous members of the army or the police. That is why we draw a line between a professional police and army on the one hand and party militia on the other.

I find it facile politicking attempts to link the abhorrent behaviour of a few soldiers to an entire nation’s human rights record. While that behaviour cannot be excused, the truth is that you cannot fight war in a foreign land and still carry a Mother Teresa image about you. War is death. You kill or you are killed. Ask those who have been on the frontline and they will tell you their actions are motivated by fear. The United States may be the sole superpower but there is no difference in human sentiment between an American and a Ugandan soldier.

The behaviour of captors towards prisoners of war is to inspire fear, not to earn respect. The cultural and religious differences between the West and the Muslim world only aggravate the ill-feelings and resentment. American and British soldiers are fighting a deadly war, they are not human rights campaigners. Foot soldiers in a war situation don’t carry political messages. The uniform and the national flag may, but soldiers carry guns.

In the end what does constitute human rights abuses is the role and attitude of the political authorities. Already America and Britain are investigating the allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Even by the Herald’s own admission, six US guards have been charged while “six military police officers have received career-ending letters of reprimand, two of whom have been relieved of their duties”.

The same cannot be said of those accused of committing atrocities in Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s. Although President Mugabe has described this as “an act of madness that should never be repeated again”, those responsible have remained under a presidential carte blanche whether or not to face prosecution.

The same can be said of those who killed Talent Mabika and Tichaona Chiminya ahead of the election in 2000. President Mugabe defended members of the security forces who tortured the late Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto over an alleged foiled coup, saying “they had been provoked”. I know of none of the numerous reported cases of human rights violations committed during the violent parliamentary and presidential elections that has been investigated or prosecuted, even where the perpetrators are known.

So I don’t know what those going to the rooftops about American and British human rights abuses in Iraq aim to achieve. Why do we want to set our human rights standards against the worst possible cases?

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