THE arrest of MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti last week has a striking resemblance to what has befallen many of President Robert Mugabeâ€™s political rivals since Independence.
Biti was picked up at Harare International Airport last Thursday soon after returning home from two monthsâ€™ self-imposed exile in South Africa. His colleagues say the move was part of Mugabeâ€™s crackdown on his opponents ahead of the June 27 presidential run-off.
Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC face-off in the second round after failing to win an outright victory on March 29.
Biti was initially charged with treason arising from a document titled “The Transition Strategy” he allegedly authored, and for communicating information prejudicial to the state after he told the media soon after the March 29 elections that Tsvangirai had won an outright victory against Mugabe.
This week police pressed more charges against Biti, one for allegedly causing disaffection in the police and the other for insulting Mugabe. All four charges fall under the draconian Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.
Biti in the document allegedly called on the US and Britain to intervene militarily in Zimbabwe. He also allegedly wrote that Tsvangirai had sent retired Colonel Tichaona Mudzingwa to meet Army Commander Philip Sibanda over “his ejection from office and the oppositionâ€™s takeover of the army”.
Mudzingwa allegedly went to the army headquarters where he threatened to disband the army, police and the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO).
Political analysts this week argued that Mugabeâ€™s regime has since Independence used treason charges as a tool against his opponents.
The charges, the analysts said, were meant to strike fear in the hearts of opposition members and their supporters, thereby causing confusion in their camp in the hope of derailing their campaign on the eve of a crucial poll.
John Makumbe, a University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer, said Mugabe had repeatedly used treason charges to “harass and harangue” the opposition, but without success.
“The use of treason charges against the opposition is now a pattern,” Makumbe said. “Mugabe does not tolerate any challenge to his rule and has been using treason charges to harass the opposition.”
The fierce critic of the octogenarian leader said the use of treason charges was unfortunate.
“Itâ€™s unfortunate because he seems to use the same tactic, even though it has failed to have his opponents locked up or hanged,” Makumbe added.
He said the use of treason allegations against the opposition was a political weakness of Mugabe, the CIO and Zanu PF because over the years it had failed to achieve the
intended goals and was bound to fail in the future.
National Constitutional Assembly chairperson Lovemore Madhuku said treason charges were used against opposition party members to cow them.
“It is an intimidatory tactic by the Mugabe regime,” Madhuku said. “It is done to wear down political opponents. Treason charges are easy to frame, but difficult to prove.”
Madhuku added that by arresting Biti, Zanu PFâ€™s intention was to throw into disarray the MDC presidential run-off campaign as the party spent most of its time trying to secure his release.
The MDC has since said Biti was arrested on trumped up charges and that state security agents had fabricated the document in question. In a letter dated April 18 to the Herald, which first published the document, Bitiâ€™s lawyers said the document was a forgery and demanded to know its origin.
The newspaper said it had downloaded it from the Internet.
“Mugabeâ€™s level of desperation to remain in power has been high since Independence,” political scientist Michael Mhike observed. “He has used treason charges against his opponents even when it was clear that he had the backing of the electorate, especially in the 1980s.”
Former Zipra commanders Dumiso Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku and four others were arrested on charges of high treason and illegal possession of arms of war in the early 1980s following the “discovery” of arms caches on Zapu properties.
Dabengwa in particular was accused of writing to Russiaâ€™s spy agency, the KGB, appealing for assistance on behalf of Zapu to topple the then Prime Minister Mugabeâ€™s government.
The six were acquitted by the High Court in 1983, but were further detained under Emergency Powers Regulations.
The founder of Zanu, the late Ndabaningi Sithole, was arrested in October 1995 for allegedly conspiring to assassinate Mugabe and engaging in unlawful underground military operations.
Sithole was convicted and sentenced to an effective two years in jail. However, he was granted leave to appeal to the Supreme Court against both conviction and sentence. At the time of Sitholeâ€™s death in December 2000, his appeal was yet to be heard.
In a case almost similar to that of Biti, the government claimed just before the June 2000 general election that it had intercepted an MDC document titled Movement for Democratic Change â€” USA/UK Sponsorship Platform, that detailed a plot by the opposition to “sabotage the economy and engage in a military and shortages option”.
The government claimed that the MDC get sponsorship from local white farmers, industrialists, the pro-Rhodesian lobby and Western forces.
According to the government, the document explained how the MDC would enroll commercial farmers as a reserve police or paramilitary force and guarantee genuine black/white equilibrium in numbers and ranks within the defence forces in the event it was voted into office.
The document, government alleged, proposed an undertaking for a “military option” by the US and the UK.
The government said it had initiated investigations into the case, but the matter was never pursued. It suffered a natural death.
But the biggest treason trial was against Mugabeâ€™s current bitter rival â€” Tsvangirai.
The opposition leader was charged in February 2002 with plotting to assassinate Mugabe and stage a military coup with the assistance of a former Israeli spy, Ari Ben-Menasheâ€™s Dickens & Madson consultancy company based in Canada.
Tsvangirai denied the charges saying the “whole thing was contrived” to damage him politically ahead of the March 2002 presidential election against Mugabe.
“Itâ€™s intended to distract people and confuse people, but the people will see through this whole ploy,” Tsvangirai said.
The opposition leader alleged that Ben Menashe was paid by the government to entrap him and obtain testimony against him via a video.
Tsvangirai had the previous year held meetings with the consultancy based in Montreal that had, unbeknown to him, been hired by Mugabe.
A video from several meetings was shown in an Australian documentary in January 2002, during which Tsvangirai used the word “elimination” in reference to the president.
But Tsvangirai said the interpretation placed on the tape was a “total fabrication”.
High Court judge, Justice Paddington Garwe, acquitted Tsvangirai of the treason charge in October 2004.
Tsvangirai, however, faced three more treason charges that were later withdrawn by the state before plea.
Several opposition party members have also faced similar charges.
It remains to be seen if this time around, the state has enough evidence against Biti that would see him jailed.
By Constantine Chimakure