Jestina Mukoko: 'Mugabe's henchmen came for me before dawn'

For years Jestina Mukoko fearlessly catalogued cases of murder, rape and torture in Zimbabwe. Then the regime seized her.

Daniel Howden
Saturday 17 January 2009 01:00

It is the visit all Zimbabweans dread. For Jestina Mukoko, it came at 5 o'clock on the morning of 3 December. Six men and a woman appeared at her house in Norton, a short drive from the capital, Harare. They told her to come with them immediately but refused to say who they were or where she was being taken.

The director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project and a forthright campaigner for human rights, she realised she was being abducted and that this was no ordinary arrest.

"I was not wearing anything other than a nightdress," she says in a sworn affidavit, the contents of which The Independent can reveal. "I had no undergarments and other personal and medical requirements."

When she asked for time to dress and fetch her glasses, two of the men grabbed her and pushed her out of the front door and into the back of an unmarked car where she was made to lie on the backseat. "Immediately, a woollen jersey was put across my face, covering my eyes, nose and mouth, as a result I had problems breathing and almost suffocated." As she lay there fighting for breath, she saw a gun on the floor.

It was the beginning of an ordeal that has become a terrifying commonplace for anyone who dares to criticise the leadership in Zimbabwe. Scores of opposition members and rights activists have been abducted, tortured and in many cases murdered. The difference this time was Ms Mukoko's high international profile as a leading campaigner and respected human rights leader, and the volume of the response to her brazen abduction and disappearance.

Ms Mukoko suddenly found herself the victim of the same violent abuses that she had made public previously. The Mugabe regime had erred from its usual tactic of targeting low profile, mid-ranking opponents and provided a human focal point for outrage at the epidemic of disappearances. World leaders from Gordon Brown to Condoleezza Rice duly demanded her release.

She was driven for a little over half an hour in what she thinks was the direction of Harare itself, then arrived at a building. Inside she was taken to a side room and given plastic sandals. She could not see anything through the windows and was forced to wear a blindfold while going to the toilet.

Soon, she was taken to what she took to be an interrogation room. She was questioned by six people, who again did not give their names. They asked her a barrage of questions about her NGO, the Peace Project. Then the questions switched to allegations that she was recruiting youths for military training with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. And the torture began.

"First, I was assaulted underneath my feet with a rubber-like object which was at least one metre long ... Later, I was informed to raise my feet on to a table, and the other people in the room started to assault me underneath my feet. This assault lasted for at least five to six minutes. They took a break and then continued again with the beatings."

The interrogation continued into the night with a break of a few hours after which her questioners returned drunk and started the beatings again. Beatings with rubber truncheons have been a favourite torture tactic for the regime in Zimbabwe because they leave no marks likely to be visible at later court appearances.

After three days of this, during which she was questioned in detail over dates of meetings and individuals, she was blindfolded again. "We drove for about two hours. I do not know where we went but I had been warned that since I refused to co-operate they were going to hand me over to some people and they could not protect me."

Her new interrogators, all 10 of them, were waiting in what looked like a conference room. They claimed they were "law and order" officials but gave no further explanation.

"One of the interrogators said I was going to suffer, and I will have to make a choice of either becoming a witness to these alleged cases of military training or I become extinct as no prosecutions were to be held."

As the days passed, she became aware that two of her ZPP colleagues, Broderick Takawira and Pascal Gonzo, were being held in cells near hers. She was also inadvertently made aware of the clamour for her release in the outside world, with her torturers complaining that, "I seem to drive a huge organisation and carried so much influence as there had been so much noise about my whereabouts".

At that point, the refusal by the Zimbabwean government to grant entry to a group of eminent statesmen including former US president Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan and Graca Machel, widow of the former Mozambique president, was causing a global outcry. Known as the "elders", the group called a news conference in neighbouring South Africa and added its voice to appeals for the release of Ms Mukoko. The govern

ment in Harare denied any knowledge of her whereabouts and an order from Zimbabwe's High Court for her to be found and released was ignored by the police who insisted they did not know where she was.

Ms Mukoko, back in her clandestine detention centre on 13 December, was pushed to sign a statement that she had recruited an ex-policeman into the military plot. When she refused to "confess", gravel was spread over the floor of the room and she was made to kneel on it. The interrogations continued for hours with her in this position.

By the next day her medical condition had deteriorated dramatically. She demanded the right to see a doctor and was given a brief visit from a man who identified himself as Dr Chigumira. "Upon seeing me, he expressed shock on his face," she says. She was finally given medicine to treat serious allergies.

The next day she was made to read her earlier statements to camera, and repeatedly pushed to admit links to an ex-policemen called Fidelis Mudimu. During this time Ms Mukoko, known to many Zimbabweans from her time as a television journalist, overheard someone saying that they were at the King George VI barracks, outside Harare.

Three days before Christmas, the blindfold came on again and she was again bundled into a vehicle. After a few minutes of driving, turning, reversing and parking she was told that she and another abductee, whom she later identified as a colleague, Broderick Takawera, were in police custody. They were not allowed to remove their blindfolds.

For two days she was shuffled from one police station to another. She accompanied police on searches of her home and office, where items were seized with no inventory made.

Finally, after 21 days, she was able briefly, in the presence of police, to see her family. On Christmas Eve, and without legal consultation she was made to appear in court. Alongside her in the dock were seven others who had been abducted, some held for up to 76 days, including a 72-year-old man and a two-year-old boy. The boy, who his mother claims was held in a separate cell and beaten with a fan-belt when he cried out for her, was released this week. He has been handed over to strangers as his mother, Violet Mupfuranhehwe, and father, Collen Mutemagawo, both remain in detention.

Another abductee, Chris Dhlamini, the head of security for the opposition MDC described in his affidavit being "suspended from a considerable height" and beaten all over his body with what felt like a tin full of stones. On another occasion, his head was pushed into a sink full of cold water and held there until he thought he would drown.

Ms Mukoko, along with a dozen other activists, is still being held, accused of a plot to overthrow the Mugabe government. In a court appearance this week, she wept on the stand as she recounted her ordeal. The authorities who denied abducting and detaining her, now deny torturing her. In her own words: "This is all I recall in respect of my ordeal from the 3rd of December 2008 when I was abducted from my house until the 22nd of December when I ended up appearing at a police station and being charged of offences which I denied committing. My kidnappers are still roaming free."

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