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Torture Instrument of State Policy

THE ruling by the Supreme Court which permanently stayed prosecution in prominent human rights activist Jestina Mukoko’s case on Monday has brought into sharp focus the issue of torture of suspects.

The highest court of appeal ruled that the case would not go ahead and therefore the case is now closed. The court said reasons for the judgment would follow.

The case fell into a familiar pattern in which the state failed to prove its allegations of treason and banditry, although the suspects have been abducted and tortured during the process. There are several examples of this in Zimbabwe.

While Mukoko and other accused human rights activists may have reason to celebrate the end of their horrendous ordeal, their alleged torture in detention remains a compelling issue of public interest. Mukoko is seeking damages amounting to more than US$500 000 against state agents implicated in her illegal abduction and torture last year. Mukoko alleges “illegal abduction, disappearance and torture at the hands of state players”, according to her lawyers.

Zimbabwe has a long history of torture dating back to colonial times. However, what is worrying is that a number of senior government officials who were victims of torture during the liberation struggle are now presiding over a government which stands accused — and has dismally failed to make a plausible denial — of using torture as an instrument of state policy.

The victims of state-sanctioned torture since 1980 are many. Most of them were arrested, detained and tortured on all sorts of apparently baseless allegations, which is why they were acquitted by the courts.

The damage inflicted on them physically and psychologically would however have been severe and at times life-threatening.

Despite its illegality and immorality, torture still remains prevalent up to this day in Zimbabwe. Lawyers have complained of severe abuses of suspects and highly coercive methods of interrogation in detention.

Government has never hesitated to sanction torture and this has gone on for far too long. Even heroes of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle such as Joshua Nkomo, Dumiso Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku, Welshman Mabena, Edward Ndlovu, Kembo Mohadi and many others were subject to physical and psychological torture during the 1980s on allegations similar to those faced by Mukoko and others.

Masuku died as a result of brutality in detention on allegations which were dismissed by the courts. Most of government’s cases which often lead to torture of suspects or prisoners usually collapse before the courts due to lack of evidence, but the agents of repression and torture who have inflicted systematic pain on innocent victims are not held to account. This has allowed torture to persist as an instrument of state policy.

Politicians who have also been victims of political persecution and state-sanctioned violence bordering on physical or psychological torture include Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his former aide Ghandi Mudzingwa, among others.

Tsvangirai was undoubtedly subjected to psychological torture as a result of numerous treason charges which he faced although the state failed to substantiate them. He was also heavily assaulted in police custody in 2007 in a move which horrified Zimbabweans and the world.

There have also been scores of civil society activists — the latest being Mukoko, her colleagues and MDC activists — who have been victims of torture. Individual citizens have also been abducted, detained and tortured on all sorts of often unfounded allegations.

Although there has been an inclusive government since February, nothing seems to have changed. Political repression and evil methods of interrogating suspects, including torture, remain. This is disturbing, especially at a time when the country is expected to introduce political reforms which should consign such barbaric practices to the dustbin of history.

In terms of the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture, the word “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or psychological, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Torture is a crime under the UN Convention Against Torture, adopted by the General Assembly in 1984, and other relevant international frameworks, and is similarly defined in the national legal codes of many of the UN’s member states.

International humanitarian law prohibits torture and other forms of ill treatment at all times and demands that detainees be treated according to the rules and principles of international humanitarian law and other international standards.

The collapse of the Mukoko case and her subsequent legal action to demand damages for torture should awaken the country and the international community to the continued existence of this wicked practice in Zimbabwe.

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