PRESIDENT Mugabe’s endorsement of police violence has with one stroke stripped the mask of reason that he likes to present to the world. And it will have tarnished the nation’s image irretrievably.
Abandoning the role of a more-sinned-against-than-sinning ruler projected during his interview with Associated Press in New York, Mugabe has now revealed the more vicious streak that has come to the fore in recent years. ZCTU leaders got what they deserved, he told Zimbabwe embassy staff in Cairo last Saturday, after complaints by foreign governments and human rights bodies began to pour in.
He repeated these damaging remarks on arrival at Harare airport on Monday, saying labour leaders who break the law and disregard police orders would be beaten up. They got what they deserved for refusing to disperse, Mugabe told supporters.
“The police must do their work,” he said. “Anyone who resists is actually inviting police to use force.”
It is instructive to note here how Mugabe has given the impression that the ZCTU leaders got their bones broken because they refused to disperse when told to do so. Leaving aside the obvious point that the police have no right to assault people in any circumstances, Mugabe must not be allowed to get away with his deceptive spin on events.
The ZCTU leaders and others were assaulted in police holding cells, not on the streets. Their attempt at mounting a protest on the streets had been thwarted by a blanket police presence.
A magistrate who saw the condition of the ZCTU leaders in hospital ordered a police investigation. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds following Mugabe’s remarks.
There is a precedent for all this. After Standard newspaper editor Mark Chavunduka and his colleague Ray Choto were tortured in state custody in January 1999 over a story claiming that disgruntled soldiers had planned a coup, Mugabe went on television to warn them of further military retribution if they published such a story again. He also threatened the Standard’s owners.
Meanwhile, a court-ordered police investigation of the two journalists’ treatment came to an abrupt halt at the gates of the KGVI barracks.
Just as egregious is the case of Joseph Mwale who, although an employee of the Office of the President, continues to roam free despite court cases linking him to the murder of two MDC supporters in 2000.
What Mugabe has done now is to spread the fire-wall of impunity to rogue police officers who systematically assaulted the ZCTU detainees held in their custody. The victims’ only offence was to have attempted to protest against prevailing economic conditions.
The head of state has sworn to uphold the constitution which protects citizens from torture and other cruel punishment. Zimbabwe is a signatory to international covenants barring the use of torture. His latest outburst, coming a month after his threat that the armed forces have their fingers on the trigger, expose him to the scrutiny of the international courts. The maladroit remarks are also likely to embarrass the police who have always denied the use of torture. This can no longer be portrayed as the work of a few overzealous officers, as Mugabe suggested in New York. It is clearly state policy approved by the highest office in the land.
Reported on the same day as Mugabe’s menaces, acting Home Affairs minister Nicholas Goche was lecturing the defence forces on the need to conduct themselves “in bona fide”. Members of the defence forces should “conduct themselves in a manner that recognises the norms and values of a civilised society when called upon to assist during times of civil disobedience”, Goche said.
Sadly these enlightened exhortations are likely to be overlooked by a police force which has been given a greenlight to engage in brutality against individuals held in its charge.
It is to be hoped that the victims of this violence will explore their options in the civil courts. That includes identifying those giving the orders.
At the end of the day Mugabe has compounded a bad situation. His remarks will have appalled most people reading them around the world and will make defence of his regime doubly difficult for his few remaining friends. At best they show a complete absence of judgement and at worst they border on incitement. The nation has the right to expect better of the president.