Daniel Howden: The tyrant's comrade who masterminded massacres

Perence Shiri is a name that will permanently be connected to the worst crimes against humanity in Zimbabwe.

While much of the world was still feting Robert Mugabe and the new independence government in 1982, Colonel Shiri, as he then was, was leading a battalion of North Korean-trained soldiers in a massacre of political opponents in Matabeleland.

As commander of the notorious 5 Brigade, Colonel Shiri gave a speech at their passing-out parade, attended by the new President Mugabe. He told his soldiers: "From today onwards, I want you to start dealing with dissidents."

The final death toll from the massacres is still not known but researchers believe as many as 20,000 were murdered and dumped in unmarked graves.

That atrocity cemented Colonel Shiri's place in the Mugabe regime and catapulted him up the military ranks. Ever since, he has been at the fore during each of the worst periods of oppression. He commanded forces deployed during the violent land invasions in 2000 and again in 2005 during the "Murambatsvina" slum clearances across Zimbabwe.

He was promoted to the rank of air marshal and rewarded with a selection of farms seized from white owners, along with a share of the commercial spoils from Zimbabwe's involvement in the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rumoured to have adopted the nickname Black Jesus for himself because of his power over the life and death of others, Marshal Shiri is also a leading member of the Joint Operations Command, the inner cell of Mugabe cronies who planned the terror campaign unleashed on the population after the March election defeat for the ruling party.

Marshal Shiri, 54, is among the handful of figures in Zimbabwe with the most to fear from any future war crimes investigations.