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Our weekend as Mugabe’s guests

ZIMBABWE Indepen-dent editor Iden Wetherell, news editor Vincent Kahiya and chief reporter Dumisani Muleya were detained last weekend at Harare Central. This is their account.

, sans-serif”>WE were unwilling guests over the weekend at the Harare Central Hotel and we would not recommend it to anyone vacationing in the nation’s capital.

Some of the staff can be unfriendly and room service leaves a lot to be desired. Sanitary conditions are terrible. Ventilation is bad and the whole hotel stinks to high heaven.

Guests include an assorted mix of murderers, rapists, fraudsters, carjackers, and public drinkers. Mosquitoes nibble at your bare feet all night while cockroaches the size of rats scuttle about.

Prospective guests at the ZRP’s flagship hotel should a1so be warned to bring their own food and, if they can afford it, extra portions to feed other guests. There is no need to ask for a menu because there is only one dish and it is only served once a day around 2pm.

The hotel specials day in and day out are six hard beans in saline water served with a small portion of sadza on aluminium plates. For drinks or refreshments follow the source of the nearest puddle.

Guests with access to food from outside should be prepared to defend their supplies vigorously from hungry predators some of whom can turn nasty.

In the “kitchen” there is no running water except trickles from the top ablution chambers!

The toilets? Just follow the smell and you will get there. Sanitary engineers at the place have been on leave for years.

Despite the clear deterioration of standards, room occupancy has remained high with returns of up to 30 guests per room that under normal circumstances should accommodate six – a great feat which even the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority has failed to achieve in their shrill campaign.

The hosts though appear to be overwhelmed by the good business and have abandoned some of the basic precepts of customer care. They can even be quite severe with awkward guests!

In case you haven’t gathered, Harare Central Hotel is the main police station in our capital, replete with grimy holding cells for the detention of the increasing numbers of accused persons passing through the country’s creaking criminal justice system.

Political offenders such the three of us were guests there last weekend for two days and two long nights in the company of carjackers, fraudsters and a prominent Zanu PF member of parliament who is accused of obstructing the course of justice.

We were charged with criminal defamation for reporting that President Robert Mugabe commandeered an Air Zimbabwe plane for his recent holiday in the Far East. It is not disputed that Mugabe used the plane to ferry him between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. But the state, or more to the point, Information minister Jonathan Moyo, took exception to the word “commandeer” as opposed to the substance of the story, making the whole dispute a semantic one. We were told during interrogation that “commandeer” meant to hijack.

“This is not the first time the paper has written lies that are blasphemous and disrespectful to the president,” Moyo fulminated when ordering our arrest. He went on to hurl insults at us until he ran short of vitriolic superlatives, some of which were themselves defamatory of this newspaper!

Within hours of Moyo’s threat that we would be made to account for what he called our “fictional story”, de-tectives arrived at Wetherell’s home saying they wanted to “interview” him. At the same time they picked up Kahiya and Muleya. We were not interviewed as they promised but quickly consigned to the holding cells of the infamous establishment.

For those detained at Harare Central, the removal of shoes and watches may be the worst part of their ordeal – exposed to unhygienic floors and never knowing what time it is. Others may cite the absence of privacy in crowded cells – some with up to 30 people crammed in a confined space of 7m x 3m. But for the editor the chief terror was the long nights.

“Lying sleepless on those cold concrete floors, I recalled previous visits to what used to be Salisbury Central,” said Wetherell. “My first was in 1970 when I was arrested for leading a student demonstration against the Smith regime. We were made to sit on the lawns that form a quadrangle between the maze of colonial-era offices.

“The lawns and flowerbeds are still well-tended. But many of the offices, like those of the Law and Order section which is the main instrument of Mugabe’s crackdown on civil society, lie underground, are poorly lit and could do with a lick of paint. Nineteen-seventies vintage typewriters are still very much in use.”

For Kahiya the long nights were also daunting. For all of us the whole idea of being detained in dingy cells on flimsy legal grounds on the orders of an unelected but ambitious minister was galling.

After spending two nights languishing in dirty prison cells, we were asked by the magistrate at our Monday hearing if we had any complaints against the police. We said we had none. It was not their decision to detain us over a weekend. But we were as mad as hell with Mugabe’s ministerial minions for putting us through this ordeal.

It appeared the main purpose of our interrogation was to ascertain the identities of our sources at Air Zimbabwe. Moyo had spoken of “criminal collusion” between airline officials and us. But we explained that just as the police do not disclose the names of sources, or whistleblowers as they call them, in their investigations, we do not reveal ours.

Would Air Zimbabwe lie about the arrangements for Mugabe’s flight, we were asked? Quite possibly, we replied. It lied when it said the reduction of its fleet from 18 planes at Independence in 1980 to five today – with only three operational – did not represent a depletion of any sort and that it had enough aircraft to service routes!

Airzim managers claim that when Mugabe “chartered” the plane (we want to have details of that arrangement) it was lying idle. Really?

Criminal defamation is a relic of the British empire, an extension of English common law which came to Zimbabwe via South Africa. It was designed to protect the Crown and its servants from criticism. Colonial governments used it to deal with critics in the nationalist movement and press. But in recent years it has been struck down by courts in other jurisdictions as incompatible with democratic practice.

In all our statements following our release we have made it clear that this case is about public accountability. Mugabe is the country’s most senior public official.

Air Zimbabwe is a publicly owned airline. Both are accountable to Zimbabweans as they survive on taxpayers’ money – huge amounts of it. It is therefore the right and duty of newspapers to submit political leaders to scrutiny regardless of what overheated and ingratiating officials might think.

That is what we have been doing and will go on doing. Judging by the warmth of the reception we got on our release, Zimbabweans expect no less of us.

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