Prison was Harrowing Experience: Bennett

ROY Bennett, one of prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s right-hand men, was freed on bail yesterday as President Mugabe finally relented on his formidable white bete noir whom he had been determined to keep behind bars indefinitely.

Bennett (51) emerged from the gates of the squalid Mutare remand prison holding back his tears, and immediately urged a “spirit of forgiveness” in Zimbabwe’s new coalition government.

But he also condemned the country’s iniquitous prison system and said those responsible for the repression and ruination of the country over the last decade should “go on their knees and beg forgiveness” from God.

Tsvangirai’s deputy Agriculture minister-designate was arrested a month ago –– just as Mugabe was swearing in the government’s power-sharing cabinet –– on allegations of “banditry, sabotage and insurgency”.

Despite being granted bail twice by the courts, state prosecutors, acting on instructions from Mugabe’s most senior officials, ensured he stayed inside the prison by appealing against the rulings.

But on Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld the court rulings and ordered his release.

After he was allowed to change into civilian clothing yesterday, he still did not believe he would be released, his lawyers said. Supporters of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, many of them wearing “Free Roy” T-shirts, kept up a steady barrage of singing outside the rickety gates.

When prison officers lowered the flag outside the prison to mark a day of national mourning for a veteran Zanu PF official, the crowd chanted, “Susan, Susan, Susan,” for Tsvangirai’s wife who was killed in a vehicle collision a week ago.

Immediately after telephoning his wife, Heather, in South Africa, Bennett drove to Tsvangirai’s rural home in Buhera to pay his respects.

His continued detention had threatened the survival of the new political marriage, but the release is a dramatic victory for the MDC in its determination to assert its authority in the joint government.

Bennett is hated by the top echelons in Mugabe’s Zanu PF party, particularly the powerful coterie of military men close to Mugabe, both because he is a former white farmer and ex-member of the Rhodesian security forces, and adored by black Zimbabweans  because of his assimilation of the language and customs of the country’s Shona people who regard him as one of their own.

Observers said that his release was the result of Mugabe’s realisation that it was no longer possible in the country’s changing political environment to hold Bennett.

The ruling by Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku was clearly on the instructions of the president, lawyers said.

“If Mugabe wanted to, he could have ensured the judges ruled accordingly,” said one.

The prison was “a harrowing experience, I would not wish it on my worst enemy,” Bennett said shortly after his release. “There are people there who look worse than the photographs of prisoners in Dachau and Auschwitz. They get a handful of sadza and water with salt. Five people died while I was there, and their bodies were only collected after four or five days. There are people there who have been awaiting trial for three years.”

Bennett shared his small cell with 12 other men.

“It breaks my heart when I think of them,” he said.
“Conditions in that gaol are brought about by hate. I bear no malice. In my heart, all I can do is move forward to build the country. If we don’t forgive and there isn’t a spirit of forgiveness, we are going nowhere. There are people who don’t want right to prevail and want to keep believing they have the power to do anything. But they are few and their time is near the end.”

The demeanour of the guards at the prison was a clear indication of the fast dissipating loyalty of the country’s ordinary uniformed personnel to Mugabe. At the gates, one told me excitedly when I arrived, “Mr Bennett is getting out today. Yes, we are happy.”

Last week another asked MDC officials for 18 “Free Roy” T-shirts. “Ten for the day guards, and eight for the night guards,” he said.

Bennett made a major difference to the misery of many of the prisoners. When he was brought food by MDC officials, he saw to it that meals were brought to his cellmates, and organised soap and disinfectant to clean the ordure-layered cell.

One of the inmates, a South African, had been there six months with an untreated broken arm from his brutal arrest, although there were no charges against him.

Bennett raised his case with his lawyers and on Monday he was collected by South African embassy officials. –– The Times (UK).

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