Sholto Byrnes: Should Robert Mugabe be now forgiven his crimes?

Prosecuting one man can't remove the complicty of all the others

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Robert Mugabe has not had such a good week since he managed to shake hands with Prince Charles at the last pope's funeral in 2005. Days after regional leaders at the South African Development Community summit called for the removal of "all forms of sanctions against Zimbabwe", the one-time pariah president received another present: the arrival of an EU delegation, the first such visit to his country for seven years.

Some may find images of a cheery Mugabe welcoming the Swedish development minister with "open arms" and brushing aside questions about stepping down - at 85, he is "still young", he said - hard to stomach. This is a man, after all, who has presided over economic ruin, torture, killing and starvation. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has called for him to be tried in the Hague for crimes against humanity. But far from demanding punishment, could we - should we - bring ourselves to forgive him instead?

In June this year I sat down with a man who has responded in just such a superhumanly charitable manner to the brutal actions of another dictator. Mohamed Nasheed became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives last November. Under the previous regime of Maumoon Gayoom, he had been imprisoned 23 times, held in a tiny metal box under the tropical sun for months, and tortured, including being forced to swallow broken glass. But remarkably, he has not only forgiven his jailers and torturers but has refused to take any action against them whatsoever.

"We shouldn't come out with this sweet revenge idea," he told me as we spoke after he opened the new Iru Fushi Hilton, a sumptuous symbol of the only Maldives that holidaymakers ever see. He has removed the chief of police, but apart from him, "the rest of the top brass are my own interrogators," he said. "There are so many allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. No one has to tell me. I know it's true - I've been tortured twice."

But Nasheed, an English-educated journalist whose cause was championed by Amnesty and PEN, is unwilling to prosecute members of the old regime. "In the past, whenever there's been a change of government, the former ruler was either mobbed or sent out from the country. We want to break that circle and see if we can find amicable solutions."

Zimbabwe's neighbour, South Africa, provides another example of such heroic magnanimity - of victims of injustice and brutality showing themselves to be better than their oppressors.

Forgiveness appears to be in short supply in Britain at the moment, however. A recent poll found that a majority of Scots not only opposed the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi but thought he should die in jail, an opinion shared by David Cameron. But leave aside the question of Megrahi's failing health and the problem is this: is it right to load such a weight of vengeance on one man's shoulders?

For this is undoubtedly part of the reason why the uproar over his release has been so great. No other individuals have been called to account for the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, for Libya's long years as a state-sponsor of terrorism, nor for its provision of semtex explosives to the IRA.

We hunger for a man, a name to which we can put a face, on whom justice is seen to be done. It is an understandable appetite, and indulging it can be both satisfying and convenient, as the French found when they placed the burden of guilt for wartime collaboration on Marshal Petain, thus allowing former Vichy fonctionnaires such as Francois Mitterrand off the hook. But it does not make it right, nor necessarily just; for prosecuting one man, whether dictator, terrorist or war criminal, does not remove the complicity of all the others, often the thousands, who have supported or participated in their crimes.

Further, baying for such punishment can end up having the effect of prolonging the actions we wish to condemn. For all that governments pretend they will never talk to terrorist groups, for instance, it is only when they do, and combine that with ceasing threats of retribution, that those groups can shed their violence and enter the political realm. Similarly, efforts to bring Mugabe to the International Court of Justice will not increase the likelihood of his voluntarily relinquishing power (and there is no imminent prospect of his leaving in any other way).

If opposition figures and the Obama White House are willing to contemplate dealing with the military as part of Burma's future, then the Zimbabwean president, who, for all his misdeeds, does not have a record as appalling as the Burmese generals, may have to be recognised as part of the solution in his country, too.

Forgiveness – and refusing to seek legal vengeance for Robert Mugabe's crimes may be seen as an expression of that – may be hard. But if one day it helps an old dictator become an old ex-dictator, it may prove far sweeter than revenge.

The author is Assistant Editor of the New Statesman

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