By Stephen Bevan
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has stepped up the use of torture against political opponents, civil rights protesters and students in an attempt to clamp down on dissent ahead of next year’s elections.
A Sunday Telegraph investigation has revealed how torture methods that were once used only by the feared Central Intelligence Organisation, Zimbabwe’s internal security agency, are now routinely employed by uniformed police officers. Victims report that electric shock torture is being used simply to spread indiscriminate terror.
They have given vivid testimony of life behind the barbed-wire fences of Fairbridge camp, a sprawling police detention centre in dusty bushland 15 miles outside Zimbabwe’s second biggest city, Bulawayo. It backs up claims by Zimbabwe’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), that the government has stepped up its campaign of intimidation despite the continuing talks between the two sides mediated by South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki.
The revelations from former camp inmates also raise further concerns about the decision by Portugal, which holds the presidency of the European Union, to invite Mr Mugabe to next weekend’s EU Africa summit in Lisbon. The invitation has prompted the Prime Minister Gordon Brown to boycott the event, saying he will not share a table with a man guilty of “oppression and repression”.
Fairbridge, which houses a feared police unit known as the “Black Boots”, acts as a regional interrogation centre for students and protest leaders arrested in southern Zimbabwe, where support for the MDC is strongest. Its bloodstained cells have been full in recent months as Mr Mugabe seeks to quell protests over the country’s 8,000 per cent inflation rate and chronic food and fuel shortages.
Accountancy student Velathi Ncube, 25, was among 30 taken there after taking part in a protest over a 400 per cent increase in fees at Bulawayo’s National University of Science & Technology. “They put us all in one room and told us to lie on the floor on our stomachs, then they started beating us randomly,” he said.
“They said ‘we’ll teach you not to rebel against the authorities, we’ll show you who has power now’. They took us one by one to another room for questioning.
“When my turn came I was told to remove my clothes. I sat on a stool facing one of the policemen who asked me: ‘Who organised the demonstration? Who is sponsoring you?’. There were two other policemen standing behind me with pliers. Whenever I gave them an answer they didn’t like, they grabbed me with the pliers on my neck and shoulders. I cannot describe the pain.”
The next day, he and the other students were dumped in the bush 45 miles away.
Another victim, 33-year-old Mandla Nyathi, a Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions activist, told how he and five other union members were taken to Fairbridge after being arrested during a demonstration. “When we arrived we were taken into a room whose walls were covered with blood, and the floor was strewn with broken bottles and odd shoes,” he said.
“The police demanded to know the whereabouts of our leadership, and when we did not give them the information the torture began.”
When he still refused to give them any information, police officers took out whips and started lashing him.
“When that failed they electrocuted me through the genitals,” he added. “As I passed out I could hear my colleagues screaming in pain as well.”
Some of the worst alleged abuses by police have been carried out upon members of the civil protest group Woman of Zimbabwe Arise, most of whom are ordinary mothers. Of 397 members interviewed in a recent survey, 40 per cent said they had been tortured by police, and 26 per cent needed medical treatment for their injuries.
One activist, Angela Nkomo, revealed how she was taken to Fairbridge after taking part in a demonstration in Bulawayo early this year.
“We were forced to strip naked and lie on our stomachs before dozens of Black Boots beat us with baton sticks and leather belts,” she said. “After that we were interviewed individually in a room full of male policemen while we were naked.” Another member, Clarah Makoni, 19, broke down in tears as she recalled how she was forced to run through what she described as an obstacle course of electric wires. “The torture continued for hours,” she said. “I was whipped while lying on my stomach. They then put me in a room full of ice.”
According to the latest monthly report on political violence produced by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, during the first nine months of this year there were 776 cases of assault and 526 cases of torture – almost twice as many as over the same period last year.
Tendai Chabvuta, head of the forum’s research unit, linked the increase in torture to the forthcoming congress of Mr Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF party next month. It is expected to ratify Mr Mugabe as its presidential candidate for elections due in March.
“It’s quite clear that 2007 is the worst year for human rights in terms of politically motivated violence against opposition forces and human rights activists,” said Mr Chabvuta.