Zimbabwe Activist Honored By U.S.

Human rights abuses continue to plague Zimbabwe, but despite the danger, some Zimbabweans have challenged the system by speaking out. One of them is Jestina Mukoko, a human rights activist who was abducted and tortured for her work. Last week she was honored as one of the 10 winners of the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage for 2010.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the number of men and women in state prisons has dropped for the first time since 1972. We'll talk about that in a few minutes.

But first, South African president, Jacob Zuma, today completes an important visit to neighboring Zimbabwe. He went to evaluate the troubled power sharing agreement signed a year ago by Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, and opposition prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.

But tensions in the coalition government have persisted amid ongoing harassment and abuse of human rights activists and opposition figures. Despite that, many Zimbabweans continue to speak out, and one of them is Jestina Mukoko. She's the founding director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a group that monitors human rights conditions. And she was honored last week as one of 10 winners of the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage for 2010.

First Lady Michelle Obama recognized her for her courage.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Jestina Mukoko of Zimbabwe was abducted from her home. She was tortured. She was interrogated for hours while forced to kneel on gravel, all for the simple act of speaking out about the government's human rights abuses. Yet she emerged unbroken. And as she put it, I came out of this experience not a bitter person, but a better person.

MARTIN: Jestina Mukoko was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C., and she's with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. JESTINA MUKOKO (Director, Zimbabwe Peace Project): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: What was your reaction when you found out that you would be given this award?

Ms. MUKOKO: I screamed on the day I had a brother who was not well and there were a lot of people in my house. After I came from the phone, that's when I told them, I've just been recognized by Secretary Hillary Clinton. And I was delighted, at the same time, humbled standing in for multitudes of other women. Some who have been more courageous than me. Some who have lost their lives in this fight for the defense and protection of human rights.

MARTIN: Is it difficult, though, to come from the circumstances that you have been in and working under these very difficult conditions and then come and sort of be feted at parties and things. Is there something a little odd about that? Or is it just a welcome respite to at least have someone say thank you and to appreciate you?

Ms. MUKOKO: I think it's just a welcome respite. And, actually, when I made the speech earlier before the awards, I was actually saying, March is a very important month to me. I'm born in this month and on the second of March last year, after 89 days of being away from my family, I was granted bail. And so, March has got this significant place in my life.

MARTIN: Well, happy birthday.

Ms. MUKOKO: Thank you.

MARTIN: But I so hate to take you back to that time, but as we discussed, you were abducted and held in detention. And I would like to ask, if you don't mind, what happened?

Ms. MUKOKO: It was the third of December in the early hours of the morning, I was at home with my teenage son and my young nephew. And within minutes, they had bundled me in a tarp and after about a 30, 40 drive, I could tell that I think we were getting to our destination. And then in no time, the interrogation had started. I was asked about my organization, what the work that we do, which I gladly told them about. I was then asked about my relationship with the MDC. And there...

MARTIN: The Movement for Democratic Change, which is a party headed by Morgan Tsvangirai.

Ms. MUKOKO: Morgan Tsvangirai, yes. And I said I had no contact with that party and I'm not a political activist. I am a human rights activist. And I'm convinced that it's the work that I'm doing as a human rights defender probably ruffled some feathers in the wrong quarters, and this is the reason why I found myself being tortured.

And on that first day, the torture was intense. I was assaulted on the soles of my feet. And later on, I was asked to raise my feet on a desk as high as this while I sat on the floor. And as a woman, I really felt indifferently assaulted because the dress was coming down and my thighs and everything were exposed. And one of them had the arrogance to say, we're not worried about your legs, just put up your legs there. And the beating continued.

MARTIN: Can I just ask how long this went on?

Ms. MUKOKO: On the first day, the physical torture, I think they would just give me a break of an hour in between. And whenever they started assaulting, it would be about five to six minutes. On the second day, it was more of the psychological torture because I remember one of the guys saying, where did you leave your child? I said, I left him at home. And one of them said, are you sure that he's still at home? And what then struck me at that time was the fact that could it be that I'm in the same place with my son? I could not live with that.

MARTIN: You were worried that they had taken him as well.

Ms. MUKOKO: I was really worried that they had taken my son.

MARTIN: Had they done so?

Ms. MUKOKO: No, they hadn't, because I then gathered up some courage and asked them for a telephone. And I said I wanted to speak to my son. And one of them caught it that I was trying to establish where my son was. And he said, I hope you are not thinking that we can be that cruel. So, at that time it sort of gave me some comfort. But at the same time, I was really worried that my family didn't know where I was.

MARTIN: Why did it stop eventually?

Ms. MUKOKO: I would think that probably the pressure that was applied on the government. Because immediately after I had been abducted, my son sent the message out and that message just spread like fire. And...

MARTIN: But there were members of the opposition who were killed in the course of this. There were people who were, as you know...

Ms. MUKOKO: Who are unaccounted for up to today, yes.

MARTIN:: Who are unaccounted for to this day and are presumed dead. And I'm just so, is it your sense as though that the public attention and pressure did help to save your life?

Ms. MUKOKO: I think it did, because I was also being threatened with death. And I was being told that I could be buried anyway and no one would really know and no one would question.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im speaking with Jestina Mukoko. She's one of the 10 winners of the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage for 2010 awards. She's the founding director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project. Thats a group that monitors human rights abuses perpetuated by the Zimbabwean government, and Ms. Mukoko was herself a victim of abuse.

I wanted to ask about moving forward. It's been a year since Robert Mugabe entered into this power sharing agreement and his government, I should say, with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. And of course a lot of hope has been invested in this arrangement.

But to this point, people continue to be arrested and held without charge. And economic conditions continue to be very dire. The Red Cross has come out with statistics, say that there are more than two million Zimbabweans who are in dire need of food. So, I wanted to ask: What should the rest of the world think about this power sharing agreement?

Ms. MUKOKO: There's been contentious issues around the inclusive government. And I think the feeling that is out there at the moment, we have heard it several times, people are running out of patience. But I would also want to point out, there have been some positives. There's been some stability in the economy. We are now using a multi-currency and that has reduced inflation from, I think it was about 231 million percent. It's now a single digit, about 6 percent. And it's projected that in 2010 it's going to continue to improve and get to about 5.1 percent.

MARTIN: What about your life and other activists who are trying to press for an open, transparent and accountable government? Has your ability to function improved? I mean, one of the big issues in setting the power sharing agreement in place was who would control the security services and that was something that President Mugabe was not willing to give up. So, tell me about your life and how you are able to function.

Ms. MUKOKO: Initially, the operating space kind of opened up. But all of a sudden, there is a shrinking in of this environment. And I think the situation of human rights defenders remains quite dire. Some of our colleagues are getting threats. And that makes it very difficult for us to carry on with our work, which we think that it's work that is supposed to compliment government activities, because while we work in the communities, we are identifying issues that the government needs to deal with.

But really, the concern is quite high in terms of the welfare and security of human rights defenders.

MARTIN: What about you? Since you were released after your abduction last year, have you continued to receive threats?

Ms. MUKOKO: I have not received threats from the time that I was released and up to the time when my case was thrown out, where I got a permanent stay of criminal prosecution on the 28th of September.

MARTIN: You were held on, I just want to mention, you were held on terrorism charges, which is a very serious matter in every country.

Ms. MUKOKO: Yes.

MARTIN: So, I guess the question I would have for you is, how are you maintaining your hope? I must say, I'm sitting here, you look fabulous and you seem very well and you have a, you know, a lovely way about you. How are you maintaining your sense of optimism?

Ms. MUKOKO: I have been able to maintain this optimism thinking of the thousands, if not, millions of Zimbabweans who would require my services. I was lucky that when I was abducted, I had raised a profile for myself and people launched campaigns on my behalf. But there are loads and loads of other people who do not have the same opportunity. And I believe that my role is to amplify their voices in terms of the injustices they are suffering at the moment or that they will suffer in the future, so that people really know what is happening. And that inspires me and motivates me to carry on.

MARTIN: Jestina Mukoko is a journalist and human rights activist. She's one of the 10 winners of the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Awards for 2010. And she joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. And we thank you again, and our best to you.

Ms. MUKOKO: Thank you.

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