Mugabe makes press pay price for his megalomania

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH-BORN newspaper publisher Clive Wilson was reported to be unharmed yesterday following his arrest in Harare on Friday for publishing an article about an alleged coup plot in the Zimbabwean army.

His arrest followed the release on Thursday of two journalists from his newspaper, the Standard, who claimed they had been systematically tortured by military intelligence agents.

At their bail hearing on Thursday and at a press conference following their release, the Standard's editor, Mark Chavanduka, and a reporter, Ray Choto, displayed injuries which they claimed had been caused by lighted cigarettes and beatings. The two men also said teams of interrogators had applied electrodes to their genitals and threatened to kill them if they did not reveal the source for their article.

Following Mr Wilson's arrest, colleagues and human- rights activists said they were worried that the 62-year-old Welshman might also be tortured. Yesterday, however, his son Nigel visited him in a suburban police station where he is being held, and said his father had not been mistreated.

No charges have yet been brought against the newspaper publisher, although Mr Chavanduka and Mr Choto were charged and released on bail last Thursday for "publishing false information capable of causing alarm and despondency", an offence first introduced by Ian Smith's white colonial Rhodesian regime.

A spokesman for the British High Commission in Harare said it was gravely concerned about the treatment of all three journalists and was making representations to several of the authorities.

Following his arrest on 12 January, Mr Chavanduka was held for more than a week by military intelligence, despite a series of High Court rulings ordering his release and demanding an explanation from the defence minister, Moven Mahachi. Instead, the ministry announced that it was not subject to the decisions of civilian courts.

The government made no comment on the torture allegations until Friday afternoon, when Mr Mahachi told the BBC World Service that the men had inflicted the injuries on themselves. In Bulawayo, meanwhile, the police minister, Dumisa Dabengwa, said: "I will not sit idly and do nothing while the security of the army is being undermined by a few misinformed individuals who have their own agenda."

The Standard's claim that 23 Zimbabwean soldiers have been arrested for plotting to overthrow President Mugabe comes at a time when his 19-year- old regime is beset by crisis on all sides. Years of corruption and gross mismanagement have finally begun to paralyse what was once one of Africa's most developed economies.

With the currency collapsing and inflation soaring, the government has been locked in a series of disputes over the past year with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trades Unions, the main force for opposition to the ruling Zimbabwean African National Union- Popular Front.

A series of one-day general strikes have already forced the government to back down on a number of new taxes and price increases designed to offset mismanagement and pay for a $220m (pounds 130m) perks package for Mr Mugabe's supporters from the former liberation movements.

Even the stock market went on strike last week to protest at what brokers described as a "monumentally stupid" new 5 per cent tax on the gross value of all transactions. The government duly backed down.

Observers in Harare say that Mr Mugabe's increasingly erratic and dictatorial style betrays the rising desperation in his regime. His on-again, off- again promises to seize 841 white-owned commercial farms without compensation have put a major question mark over the future of agriculture, Zimbabwe's main industry apart from mining.

The threat to property rights and other issues of governance have caused the International Monetary Fund to withhold a $123m aid package earmarked for Zimbabwe. Mr Mugabe's regime may have taken heart last week when a visiting IMF team said that it was satisfied with the government's budgetary plans, but the final disbursement still depends on the IMF board in Washington and on the attitudes of several states.

But the most immediate threat to Mr Mugabe's rule is his costly and highly unpopular military expedition to shore up Laurent Kabila's rule in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 6,000 and 8,000 Zimbabwean troops are now believed to be deployed in the Congo in an operation estimated to cost well over $1m a day.

Since the intervention began in August last year senior military officers and businessmen linked to Mr Mugabe and his inner circle have been flocking to the former Zaire in the expectation of winning lucrative mining concessions and business contracts from a grateful President Kabila. But for Zimbabwe - or at least its ruling elite - to collect, it has to win the war. With its main military ally, Angola, now hard pressed by resurgent Unita rebels at home, that prospect looks increasingly remote.