Mr Mugabe’s generals and politicians have organized campaigns of terror for decades to keep him and his party in power. But now that the opposition has a place in the nation’s new government, these strongmen worry that they are suddenly vulnerable to prosecution, especially for crimes committed during last year’s election campaign as the world watched. “Their faces were immediately pasted on the wall for everyone to see that they were behind the killing, the violence, the torture and intimidation,” said a senior official in Mr Mugabe’s party, Zanu PF, who, like others in the party, spoke anonymously because he was describing its criminal history.
To protect themselves, some of Mr Mugabe’s lieutenants are trying to implicate opposition officials in a supposed plot to overthrow the president, hoping to use it as leverage in any amnesty talks or to press the opposition into quitting the government altogether, ruling party officials said. Like South Africa at the end of apartheid or Liberia at the close of Charles Taylor’s reign, Zimbabwe is in the midst of a treacherous passage from authoritarian rule to an uncertain future. After a bloody election season last year stained by the state-sponsored beatings and killings of opposition supporters, Mr Mugabe and his rivals in the Movement for Democratic Change agreed to a power-sharing government that includes both victimizers and victims. But Mr Mugabe’s lieutenants, part of an inner circle called the Joint Operations Command, know that their 85-year-old leader may not be around much longer to shield them, and they fear losing not just their power and ill-gotten wealth, but also their freedom, officials in the party said.
Their fixation on getting amnesty was described by four senior ruling party officials, all Mugabe confidants, who spoke to a Zimbabwean journalist working for The New York Times. But some opposition officials say Mr Mugabe’s loyalists are less interested in reaching a deal than in simply forcing them out of the new government through violence and intimidation. Others suspect a push for amnesty is being sought by a broad contingent of Mr Mugabe’s party worried about accounting for the past. Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, one of Mr Mugabe’s principal negotiators in the power-sharing talks, informally told opposition officials around the time that the transitional government took office in February that his party wanted an amnesty, according to a senior Zanu PF official close to the talks. “We wanted to find out if it would be possible to have amnesty dating back to 1980s,” the official said. “The MDC did not sound very forthcoming.”
Indeed, the opposition has so far offered no such assurances. “I’d rather rot in hell than agree to anything like that,” said Roy Bennett, the opposition’s third-highest ranking official. He was recently released on bail after being held for almost a month on terrorism charges. He was first implicated by a man whose doctor and lawyer say was tortured and forced into giving a false confession. Didymus Mutasa, who served as Mr Mugabe’s minister for national security until the power-sharing deal went into effect, acknowledged that some senior officials in his party might be worried about prosecution. Had the party floated the idea of an amnesty? he was asked. “Perhaps,” he said. Were abductions used to gain leverage for amnesty?
“There could have been something like that,” he said, “but how am I to know?” Still, he argued, pressing charges against senior Zanu PF officials would be counterproductive. “It’s madness to try to go back into matters of history,” said Mr Mutasa, the party’s secretary for administration.
The crimes committed to entrench Mr Mugabe’s rule date back to the 1980s, when thousands of civilians from Zimbabwe’s Ndebele minority in Matabeleland were killed by the notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Army brigade, according to historians. Among the Ndebele, the tears of the living must be shed to release the souls of the dead. But the Fifth Brigade insisted that there be no mourning for those they killed, and in some cases shot family members because they wept, according to “Breaking the Silence,” a 1997 investigation based on the testimonies of more than 1,000 witnesses. Other political crimes include widespread attacks on the opposition in 2000, 2002 and 2005, and most gruesomely last year.
Beyond that, a vast 2005 slum clearance effort known as Operation Murambatsvina, or Get Rid of the Filth, drove 700,000 people in opposition bastions from their homes. Last year, close to 200 people were killed, mostly before the June presidential runoff between Mr Mugabe and the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and thousands were tortured in state-sponsored attacks, but so far no one has been prosecuted, according to a State Department human rights report released in February. Mr Mugabe’s party fears that even more damning evidence will be unearthed. For the first time since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the opposition has a majority in Parliament that can investigate corruption and political violence.
“There are more explosive issues that are not in the public domain, cases that have not been reported but still have a serious impact on the future of some of the officials who were in the previous government,” said a senior Zanu PF official. Last year, as it did in the 1980s, Mr Mugabe’s loyalists cut off food aid to hungry areas, blocked access to foreign journalists, sent party youth brigades to terrorize the countryside, charged their rivals with treason and used abduction, torture, arson and killings to silence critics. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the minister who oversaw the intelligence agency in the 1980s, ran Mr Mugabe’s warlike election campaign last year and is now defense minister. Perence Shiri, who commanded the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland, is now air force commander. Both are among the Joint Operations Command’s 11 members, who have advised Mr Mugabe, the man at the pinnacle, throughout.
“The Matabeleland issue can be blamed on the government as a broader entity,” said a senior Zanu PF official. “But the post-March 29 violence and killings can be pinned down to only 12 people.”
Mr Mugabe’s men realized they would not succeed in getting the opposition to voluntarily give them an amnesty because, as one Zanu PF official put it, “unlike Zanu PF they have very little to worry about in terms of crimes.” One ruling party official, who speaks regularly with Mr Mugabe’s top commanders, said that his party needed opposition prisoners to trade for amnesty. A second official, who attended meetings of Mr Mugabe’s inner circle, said Air Marshal Shiri suggested jailing as many top opposition figures as possible. A third official, who has regular discussions with the top lieutenants, said the most powerful players in the party, except for Mr Mugabe, would prefer the power-sharing government to fail and have sought to keep opposition officials imprisoned in hopes Mr Tsvangirai will pull out. The officials said they agreed to be interviewed because they felt the amnesty issue needed to be faced, or because they perceived themselves as safe from prosecution and possibly benefiting from the downfall of some in the inner circle.
The recent abductions of dozens of opposition and human rights activists began in October. Many were held for weeks or months in hidden locations. Most were eventually produced in court and many have provided sworn accounts, corroborated by doctors, of being tortured to elicit confessions that they were recruiting militants to overthrow Mr Mugabe or were involved in bombing plots. Chris Dhlamini, the opposition’s director of security, was hung upside down from a tree and dropped on his head, as well as submerged in water until he believed he would drown. His interrogators tried to get him to implicate Mr Tsvangirai, he said. Fidelis Charamba, a 73-year-old local opposition official, said he was pushed into a deep freezer and had boiling water poured over his genitals. For months, Mr Tsvangirai refused to join the government, insisting on the release of his people. Finally, though they remained jailed, he relented under pressure from southern African leaders. On Feb. 11, Mr Mugabe swore him in as prime minister.
The arrest of Mr Bennett, Mr Tsvangirai’s nominee for deputy agriculture minister, just two days later cast a pall over the new government and prompted Mr Tsvangirai and others to say that elements in the ruling party were trying to sabotage the deal. “The hard-liners still filled with hate and vengeance want to use me to achieve one of two things: to broker a deal for amnesty or to get the MDC to walk away from the agreement,” Mr Bennett said.
In the weeks after Mr Bennett’s arrest, the opposition pleaded for the release of its jailed activists and officials, describing them as “political hostages.” But seven abductees are still missing, and three remain in custody. Those out on bail face charges that could bring life sentences if they are convicted. Tensions rose after Mr Tsvangirai’s wife, Susan, was killed and Mr Tsvangirai was injured in a March 6 car crash that many of his supporters believe was an assassination attempt. Though Mr Tsvangirai has called it an accident, his party is conducting its own investigation.
For days afterward, thousands of mourners gathered at the Tsvangirais’ home in Harare. In the glow of lights strung across the yard, to the driving beat of drums, party workers swirled in circles, stamping their feet and chanting, “Robert Mugabe killed Susan Tsvangirai,” and “Tsvangirai beware! Zanu PF will finish all MDC” Their fear was as palpable as their rage. When they were approached for interviews, their eyes darted around as they searched for ruling party spies and begged not to be quoted by name. “They will kill us,” one woman said. “They are everywhere.”