Opposition victims of Zimbabwe poll violence sue Mugabe in US

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The Independent Online

Four opposition supporters who were victims of government-orchestrated violence ahead of this year's elections in Zimbabwe are suing President Robert Mugabe in a New York court for crimes including murder and torture because, they claim, the rule of law has broken down in their own country.

Four opposition supporters who were victims of government-orchestrated violence ahead of this year's elections in Zimbabwe are suing President Robert Mugabe in a New York court for crimes including murder and torture because, they claim, the rule of law has broken down in their own country.

The four members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), including one MP, hope to raise the profile of their groundbreaking case when they meet Mary Robinson, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, in Geneva tomorrow.

They are suing the veteran Zimbabwean president and the country's foreign minister, Stan Mudenge, under the same legislation used in August by a Manhattan federal jury which ruled that the former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, should pay $745m to a group of women who were raped and tortured during his rule.

The Zimbabweans' Washington-based lawyer, Theodore Cooperstein, said: "Papers were served on the defendants on 7 and 8 September when they were in New York. They did not take advantage of the 20 days they had to respond and now I am awaiting a hearing and, later, a judgment."

Unlike Karadzic, the Zimbabwean foreign minister and president are not known to have engaged a lawyer and appear intent on ignoring the civil case. According to Mr Cooperstein, his clients are after a judgment which will allow them to seek seizure of the defendants' assets anywhere in the world. The plaintiffs are seeking damages in excess of $400m.

Adella Chiminya Tachiona's husband, Tapfuma, was acting as driver and agent for the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai when ruling party supporters dragged him from his car, beat him and doused him with petrol before burning him to death on 14 April.

Mrs Chiminya Tachiona, a 34-year-old school clerk with two children, said: "I would really like to apply for political asylum in Britain but I am not sure how to go about it. We do not have ways of seeking redress for what happened to us in Zimbabwe because the government either ignores the courts or makes new laws to suit itself."

The four plaintiffs also include Evelyn Masaiti, an elected MP who claims she suffered months of intimidation and murder threats; Maria Stevens, the widow of a white farmer; and an unsuccessful MDC candidate whose lookalike brother was murdered.

The candidate, 31-year-old Elliot Pfebve, who was running for the bitterly contested Bindura seat, said: "About 300 police and war veterans armed with iron bars and axes came to my house on 29 April, started fighting with my father and demolishing my home.

"Then they took my brother, Matthew, who looked very much like me, and they tied his hands with wire and beat him until he died. I have to live with the fact that the attackers were actually after me," said Mr Pfebve, a computer engineer.

Three men were jailed for the attack on Matthew Pfebve but it is not clear on what charge. If the charge was anything less than murder, the three will be released unconditionally as a result of the presidential pardon for "politically motivated crimes" which was announced last week. Only murder and rape were excluded by President Mugabe's controversial pardon which covers the period from January to July.

The MDC claims that 32 people died in violence linked to a referendum on Zimbabwe's constitution in February and the parliamentary election in June, in which the year-old opposition party won 57 out of 120 constituencies.

The New York civil suit, under the Alien Tort Act - initially introduced in 1789 to punish pirates on the high seas - and the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act, seeks to prove that the laws of civilised nations, including universally accepted standards of human rights, have been violated.

It is likely that Judge Victor Marrero in the southern district court of New York will find President Mugabe and Mr Mudenge guilty and award damages. However, it is much less certain that the plaintiffs - who hope to expand their case into a class action - will succeed in tracking down any assets held by the defendants in foreign countries. Despite claims that President Mugabe is corrupt and has spirited money out of Zimbabwe, no one has ever proved it.

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