THE ruling by the High Court which threw out the evidence of main state witness Peter Michael Hitschmann in the treason trial of Roy Bennett on Monday has once again brought to the fore the issue of torture of of people in custody.
High Court Judge Chinembiri Bhunu ruled that the evidence which the prosecution sought to use to convict Bennett was extracted under duress and therefore inadmissible.
The latest confirmation of torture falls into a familiar pattern in which the courts have at all levels found the state to be culpable in the torture of suspects.
Court records are now replete with examples of egregious excesses by security agents who use torture as a weapon of choice against perceived enemies of the state and common criminals to extract evidence.
The torture of Hitschmann occurred four years ago when he was arrested and charged with banditry. His description in court last week of the degrading treatment he was subjected to in custody mirrors the horrors of Jestina Mukoko and other human rights activists who were detained and tortured while in custody. Mukoko has since filed a US$500 000 lawsuit for “illegal abduction, disappearance and torture at the hands of state players”.
The torture saga has become a consistent tale, from the detention and torture of journalists Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka in 1999 to the most recent case of the alleged abduction and subsequent torture of MDC’s transport manager Pascal Gwezere at the end of last year.
The sad part of all this is that torture and detention have become part of the governance system in this country. This has been a weapon of choice for the repressive Zanu PF regime and lately, it has been happening under the watch of the inclusive government.
The MDC-T which has been a victim of this archaic form of repression has a role to speak out strongly against it. The closest the party has come to condemning torture was in April last year when the party’s Giles Mutsekwa, who is Home Affairs co-minister, spoke about the cowardly act.
“I know how painful and evil it is as I have in the past gone through that. It is deplorable and it should never happen,” he said.
Mutsekwa said then that there were three state security organs involved in the abduction of innocent people who they pick-up, detain for torture, then surrender at a police station for them to be brought to court.
“What we really need to do is to come up with a new Constitution. We have three centres of power that govern the operations of the police. President Robert Mugabe and the Attorney-General can order police officers to effect an investigation and arrest without the co-ministers of Home Affairs knowing,” he said.
Constitutional changes to ensure unprofessional hands do not interfere with the functions of the police is a solution but the most obvious short-term way forward is for known torturers occupying senior positions in the state security apparatus to be brought before the courts and punished.
These individuals are known and their acts of impunity stem from the fact that they are insulated from prosecution by a repressive system.
Ironically, those sanctioning torture are our so-called liberators. A number of them were victims of torture during the liberation struggle but they now preside over a government which stands accused –– and has dismally failed to make a plausible denial –– of using torture as an instrument of state policy.
Their victims since 1980 are many. Most of them were arrested, detained and tortured on all sorts of 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. Heroes of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle such as Joshua Nkomo, Dumiso Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku, Welshman Mabhena, 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, Gwezere and Hitschmann.
There is all the evidence that our government has never hesitated to sanction torture but this has gone on for far too long. Now is the time to make loud calls for that to be reversed.
We cannot continue to live with torture. We cannot continue to just celebrate the release from detention or acquittal of tortured suspects and not call for torturers to be tried and punished. Why has the Commissioner-General not lifted a finger in this regard? Why does the UN continue to overlook this abuse when funding the deployment of police officers to world hotspots?
Torture remains an international crime and a violation of important international instruments, chief among them the UN Convention Against Torture, adopted by the General Assembly in 1984.
President Mugabe and his henchmen have been trying to position themselves as victims of an international conspiracy hatched from Western capitals. Far from it.
Mugabe and his lieutenants have invited international condemnation by failure to deal decisively with torture. What they do not see is how bad they look every time the state is exposed for torturing suspects. There is no better advertisement of their credentials as human rights violators than this. So long as they carry on with impunity Zimbabwe will be regarded as a rogue state.