By Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg
FUGITIVE Zimbabwean politician Roy Bennett revealed this week that South Africa refused him asylum on the grounds that he could expect good treatment and a fair trial in Zimbabwe.
Bennett, national treasurer of the opposit
ion Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), fled Zimbabwe in March after government alleged that he led a coup plot in Mutare.
Bennett denies the charge and the charges against most other co-accused were dropped for lack of evidence.
One accused, Michael Hitschmann, remains in jail and his lawyer charges that he was tortured. Bennett is still wanted by police.
Bennett, a former MDC member of parliament, was imprisoned at the order of Zimbabwe’s parliament for one year in 2004 for shoving Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, who had insulted him. Bennett said in Johannesburg on Tuesday that the threat of another spell in jail forced him to leave the country.
“I fled Zimbabwe, the country that I love, because the government trumped up charges that I was the head of a plot against (President Robert) Mugabe,” Bennett said at his first public appearance since he arrived in South Africa.
“I have been in Zimbabwe’s jails and my body went cold at the thought of going back there. The conditions I experienced were horrible and the jails can only have become worse since the economic meltdown. I am convinced that if I stayed in Zimbabwe I would either be rotting in a cell or they would have done away with me
South Africa’s Home Affairs department responded to Bennett’s application by saying there was no evidence that his questioning or prosecution by the authorities would amount to persecution.
“There is really no evidence indicating that you’re (sic) questioning or prosecution by the authorities would amount to persecution,” it said. “Surely the courts in Zimbabwe are impartial and are able to assert the rights of individuals?
“(MDC leader) Morgan Tsvangirai’s recent trial is a case in point; on October 2005 he was acquitted of treason. Therefore, objectively, on the facts apparently prevailing there is no real risk of you being persecuted should you go back to your country of nationality.”
Bennett said the South African letter shows that President Thabo Mbeki’s government does not understand the situation in Zimbabwe.
“I am of the hope that they (the South African government) are without a real understanding of the situation in Zimbabwe, and hence the softly-softly diplomacy that is taking place,” said Bennett of the rejection of his asylum bid. He said that the decision for him to go to South Africa had been discussed with the MDC leadership.
“One of my reasons for seeking asylum here is to help the government of South Africa to understand the plight of people in Zimbabwe fully,” he said.
Bennett said he will appeal South Africa’s refusal to grant him refugee status.
“South Africa has an independent judiciary and a functioning democracy and I believe I will get a fair hearing, something I was denied in Zimbabwe,” said Bennett. He said he will be supported by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, South African Lawyers for Human Rights and Amnesty International, which he said will present compelling evidence that he is at risk of mistreatment if he returns to Zimbabwe.
“It is high time the South African government recognises that Mugabe is a despot and a dictator who uses totalitarian rule, institutionalised torture and violence and institutionalised theft. Mugabe is not just destroying Zimbabwe, once the jewel of Africa, he is pulling the whole region down,” said Bennett.
“There’s no need to be embarrassed about this, the man is a tyrant. The problem of thousands of Zimbabweans flooding into South Africa will not stop until the misrule of Zimbabwe stops and until the mismanagement of our economy stops.” He said the South African government needed to recognise the MDC as the official opposition.
“We can’t be pushed aside, we are the legitimate opposition in Zimbabwe.”
After speaking to the press, Bennett addressed a gathering of Zimbabwean exiles in Shona. “Do you want to stay here in South Africa?” he asked them. “No!” they answered. “We must all work for a new constitution to lead to free and fair elections in our country.”
Bennett said Zimbabwe’s economic decline is causing terrible hardships to all Zimbabweans. He said, however, it would be possible to undo the economic damage of recent years, and to bring about reconciliation among Zimbabweans.
“Once we have good governance in Zimbabwe, the goodwill is there in Zimbabwe and within international institutions, to revive the economy,” he said. “I do believe there has to be a justice commission whereby those who committed acts of plunder, rape and murder need to be dealt with.
“There needs to be an amnesty period within which people need to be given time to declare what they have taken, and to put it back into the economy.”
He downplayed the factional divisions in the MDC. “There is no split in the grassroots of the MDC,” said Bennett, who recognises Tsvangirai as party leader. “I don’t view it as a split — I see it as a few individuals pursuing their own agenda. We are all working for the same thing, to bring back democracy to Zimbabwe, and I hope, in time, we will be able to join together again.”
Bennett said South Africa could provide a base for the Zimbabwean opposition to organise.
“We would have freedom to bring people from Zimbabwe for workshops, to mobilise funding without fear of persecution and to be able to do what I should be able to do at home without fear or favour because I believe there is democracy here,” Bennett said.
He also said he would work to unite the fractured MDC and civic organisations.