Zimbabwe Cracks Down on Opposition Lawyers

Two lawyers from the rights group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights have been arrested in an apparent crackdown on opponents of President Robert Mugabe. Michelle Kelemen reports on the arrests, and attempts by Lawyers for Human Rights to generate American support for its members.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And our last headline comes from Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe has instituted a mandatory blackout. Residents can use power for only four hours a day. The country is trying to take the pressure off its troubled energy grid, but Zimbabwe has more than one power problem.

President Mugabe has ruled the country for 27 years. He's resisted free elections and cracked down on anyone who opposes him. Now Mugabe is targeting lawyers representing human rights activists. Two members of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights have been arrested and released on bail. One of their colleagues visited the U.S. recently, lobbying for help.

NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Twenty-six-year-old Otto Saki's father was a soldier. So he grew up on a military base with a certain image of Zimbabwe's first and only post-colonial president, Robert Mugabe.

Mr. OTTO SAKI (Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights): When he (unintelligible) the streets wearing the Zimbabwean flag, you know, I recall that vividly. And I think to many of us, you are the source of inspiration, you know, as you see him walking majestically; you know, he had this presence that he had. But I think it is being eroded.

KELEMEN: Saki, who's with the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, says he's now faced with the situation where those who were seen as the country's liberators from colonialism are the oppressors.

Mr. SAKI: We appreciate what they fought for, but now they're actually fighting against those very same principles, and it becomes our duty as the young persons to defend that.

KELEMEN: As a lawyer, Saki is busy these days trying to help those who he calls prisoners of conscience, the opposition figures rounded up in a brutal crackdown on March 11th. Saki has received threats and has been blasted in a state-run media as an agent for neo-colonialists. He argues that the current crisis shouldn't be left to Africa or the region to solve.

Mr. SAKI: It's a situation where the United Nations should be seen to be acting and be activated in response to the human rights violation that are continuing day in and day out; the abductions, the torture, the disappearances, the widespread arrests, victimization of human rights defenders, targeting of legitimate political activists. So that's the message that you're carrying today.

KELEMEN: But he and his colleagues did not get all they had hoped for when they came to the U.S. recently. Isabella Matambandadzo, with the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, says she was disappointed the group did not get a meeting with South Africa's ambassador to the United Nations. Matambandadzo argues that the countries in the region have been siding with Zimbabwe's leadership rather than with the people.

Ms. ISABELLA MATAMBANDADZO (Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa): The political leadership of Southern Africa is saying to us we don't deserve, as black citizens of an African nation, the right to human rights. This is the message that I'm getting from the Southern African leadership. Not a single state in Southern Africa has issued a statement condemning the torture and the human rights abuses and violations of March 11th, and before that, of September 13, 2006, when trade unionists were beaten by police.

KELEMEN: Here too activists are facing something of a generational challenge. African leaders are loathe to publicly criticized Robert Mugabe because of his past. Otto Saki says even within his own family, this is a difficult subject.

Mr. SAKI: There's few believe and see, you know, the current leadership in the president, in particular, is an individual who has done so much for them despite the fact that when I go home I can hardly afford to do basic groceries for my family. Every time I'd have to explain why I've not been able to do that, it ends up us having the very same political discussion about the economy, misgovernance.

KELEMEN: It's a conversation he will have often as Zimbabwe prepares for elections in 2008. Saki fears a crackdown on opposition figures will only intensify until then.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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