Mugabe sees conspiracy all around

Zimbabwe countdown » As the presidential election nears, the ruling party flails at enemies real - and imagined - on all sides
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This was the week that the topsy-turvy world of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe was finally turned on its head.

Three weeks before the presidential poll, the respected leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, was accused on a reputable Australian TV programme of plotting to "eliminate" his rival. The Independent's correspondent in Harare, Basildon Peta, was hounded out of the country, having been denounced on state television for causing a fall in the South African rand and the collapse of tourism in Zimbabwe after The Times accused him of admitting to lying about details of his arrest. And the head of the EU election observer mission, Pierre Shori, was told he was only a "tourist" and should leave Zimbabwe after being refused accreditation.

But for ordinary Zimbabweans, fighting to preserve their tattered democracy, day-to-day reality is even more grim. Take the Spicer family of Harare, for example. Over five days, the home of film-maker Edwina Spicer was searched by police, her 17-year-old opposition-activist son, Tom, was arrested, and her husband, Newton, was detained for 32 hours in a police cell without access to lawyers.

"We are fortunate – four of my son's friends are dead. We are being harassed, but lots of other stories end in horror and tragedy. The only difference between my husband's story and that of others in the police cell is the colour of his skin, and that he was not beaten up. Some of my son's black friends are still locked up."

The Spicers have suffered greatly from intimidation and smear campaigns which the ruling Zanu-PF has intensified ahead of an election that Mr Mugabe, in power for 21 years, has vowed to win. Violence is also rapidly on the rise.

The documentary that alleged that Mr Tsvangirai was plotting with a discredited shadowy former Israeli intelligence agent to murder Mr Mugabe was a major distraction for the MDC leader at a crucial point in his campaign. Police are investigating the claims, which Mr Tsvangirai vehemently denies. He may yet be arrested, even though it has emerged that the documentary was part of a dirty-tricks campaign orchestrated by a Canadian political consultancy linked to Zanu-PF.

Zimbabwe's state media also seized on misreporting in Britain about the number of hours that Mr Peta was held in Harare Central Police Station on 4 and 5 February after taking part in a protest against new draconian media laws. The state-controlled media used the controversy to attack Zimbabwe's leading independent journalist and he fled his country last Thursday night, fearing for his life.

A Harare journalist who has been arrested and harassed over the past year and did not want to be named said that smear campaigns were perilous for Zimbabwe and especially their targets: "They sow fear and confusion, which is the desired effect of the propaganda being poured out by an increasingly desperate ruling party. They also give the government the opportunity to act against its opponents. I wouldn't be surprised if Mr Tsvangirai is arrested on the basis of what we have shown to be a Zanu-PF set-up – but such an event would spark civil strife across the land."

Opposition offices were trashed (again) last week and more opposition supporters were assaulted. Two Irish tourists were arrested at Lake Kariba after two Zimbabweans they were with waved at children – open-handed waves are read by the police as support for the MDC – and yelling "Chinja!" (change).

On Friday, riot police sealed off the offices of the National Constitutional Assembly in Harare to thwart a protest amid news that Mr Shori would not be accredited.

The respected Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe called on journalists to think of the consequences of rushing into print. They should stop making "unsubstantiated allegations and restore to their newsrooms internationally accepted standards of ethical journalistic practice", the watchdog said, in remarks pointed as much at foreign correspondents as locals.

Every day, Zimbabweans – most of whom have access only to the state media on radio and television – are fed a horrendously biased menu of news and "analysis". On TV news recently, Zanu-PF's John Nkomo used a studio interview to launch a lengthy vitriolic attack on the MDC and its leaders.

The flurry of conspiracy stories in the state-owned media continued all week. The Herald alleged that the MDC had sought British military intervention if it lost the March poll; another in the Sunday Mail claimed that thousands of Zimbabweans were receiving secret military training in the UK and hordes of British spies disguised as "tourists and arts promoters" were luring Zimbabweans into the British Army; and the Chronicle blamed Britain for maize shortages because "she wants to remove the present government and impose a puppet one".

At the Spicers' home, police arrived to search for "arms of war, security-force uniforms, and subversive films and materials". They found and removed only a few movies and documentaries. On Monday, Tom and four friends were arrested while pasting up MDC election posters. They were held for 48 hours and taken to court, where a charge of having dangerous weapons was dismissed. Newton Spicer was arrested that day in Marondera and put in a tiny cell crammed with 25 people. He witnessed police assaulting detainees. Mr Spicer and two of five companions arrested with him were released next day, but the three others are still inside.

This is the story of one week. There are three more to go before Zimbabweans choose their next president. People hope, but not with great conviction, that life will return to normality after that.