Entering the nerve centre of Mugabe's enforcers

Police question The Independent's correspondent in Harare for two hours in a surreal interview about a government hit list
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The Independent Online

After two days of eluding President Robert Mugabe's law enforcement agents, I showed up yesterday at the Harare Central Police Station to turn myself in, as required, on the stroke of 10.30am.

The station is an intimidating place, perhaps the most sinister building in a city living under the shadow of President Mugabe's volatile rule.

I entered through the main door, passed a number of uniformed and plain-clothes policemen, turned down a long corridor and descended into a dark and dank basement. Interrogation rooms were all around, and I remembered those who had been taken in before me for questioning.

Some of them ended up blindfolded and bundled off to the torture cells of President Mugabe's army. Others suffered torture of a different kind, and found themselves charged with crimes that they had never committed.

Now my lawyers and I stood in one of these scruffy, dimly lit offices in the basement.

This is the very nerve centre of the state surveillance machine. From here, the police of the Law and Order Department monitor anyone who has the temerity to challenge the authority of Mr Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF. People believe these offices hold volumes that have the names, addresses and personal details of each and every member of the opposition. It is Zimbabwe's version of East Germany's Stasi files.

Behind the desk sat a corpulent plain-clothes officer who introduced himself as Detective Inspector Malungwa. In Zimbabwe the police don't usually provide first names. He politely directed me and my two lawyers – Linda Cook and Roslyn Zigomo – to take seats around a broken table in the middle of the office.

An assortment of guns and rifles lay on the floor beside the detective inspector's desk. I wondered why they had gone to the trouble of leaving the guns out. Was it a message for me?

As we sat there in silence, Det Insp Malungwa pulled out a copy of the Zimbabwean Standard newspaper. It was the edition that carried a story claiming that a hit list of journalists to be eliminated or otherwise harmed before next year's presidential elections had been drawn up, and that I was number one on that list.

He flipped through the paper, alighting on the story headlined "Media Hit List Drawn". He folded the page; the story was marked in red pen. Det Insp Malungwa was obviously playing good cop.

The previous day his boss, Superintendent Mathema, had told my lawyers over the telephone that unspecified charges would be preferred against me when I reported to the station.

Now Det Insp Malungwa was saying that he simply wanted to know more about the numerous threats that had been directed against me during the past few weeks.

My lawyer interrupted. Was this why I had been summoned to the station, she asked. Superintendent Mathema had led us to believe otherwise; we required clarification.

The officer remained vague. "Let me call Mathema," he said. He lifted the phone and dialled a number but there was no reply. Once more he repeated that the police merely wanted to help me since my life was clearly under threat.

Who, he wanted to know, had been threatening me. Could we supply the identities of the people who had sent me anonymous death threats in the post? We patiently pointed out that it was difficult to know who was making the threats since they were anonymous.

Then he changed tack. Why, he asked, had I accused the police of applying the law selectively, in remarks reported by the Standard?

To help jog his memory, my lawyer chronicled a number of incidents that the police had not bothered to investigate. One of those was the torture of two journalists by the Zimbabwe army which to this day has been ignored by the police despite a court order directing an inquiry. Another was my own report of how I had received a packet of bullets in the post.

Two hours passed, and Det Insp Malungwa decided the meeting should come to an end. We were asked to leave.

Throughout the interview he didn't ask me about the actual hit list itself as published by the Standard. Nor did he mention anything relating to my work as a journalist nor single out any story that I had written in the local and international media to the discomfort of the police.

As we left the office, I and my lawyers were still puzzled as to what the exact purpose of this interview had been. I, however, could not help but feel vindicated that not one of my stories had resulted in a criminal charge.

My lawyer, however, warned that the lack of clarity in the police action on that afternoon meant that I should still remain vigilant.

I was relieved to have emerged unscathed from the meeting. But last night there was an ominous development when Vice-President Simon Muzenda told a police parade that "errant journalists" – those who portrayed the army, the police and the secret service as "barbaric and morally decadent" – would face the full wrath of the law.

"The government is aware of the subtle strategies being perpetuated by unpatriotic citizens and sell-outs to portray Zimbabwe as a society devoid of law and order," he said.