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ZIMBABWE: Jestina Mukoko - "Not bitter, but better"

Photo: Africa News
Jestina Mukoko at one of her court appearances
Harare, 1 October 2009 (IRIN) - Jestina Mukoko's abduction, detention and torture in 2008, and the subsequent dropping of all charges by a full bench of Zimbabwe's Supreme Court on 28 September 2009, is serving as a timeline in a country emerging from the depths of despair into the first glimmer of hope.

Mukoko, a single mother, journalist and human rights campaigner, became a cause célèbre for both local and international human rights organizations, with her personal ordeal seen as a representation of the state's repression and its contempt for the rule of law.

The Supreme Court said in its judgment: "The court unanimously concludes that the state, through its agents, violated the applicant's constitutional rights protected under the constitution of Zimbabwe to an extent entitling the applicant to a permanent stay of criminal prosecution associated with the above violations."

Mukoko was charged with banditry, but many believe her work of collating the litany of human rights abuses committed against political activists, unionists and civil society members by President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government - which held power before the current unity government - ensured that she would occupy the same dank prisons and suffer the same beatings as those whose stories she had documented.

After the judgment she told IRIN: "I came out of this experience not a bitter person, but a better person; better in the sense that I was able to understand what fellow Zimbabwean activists had been going through all this time."

In 2008 Zimbabwe was trapped in a vortex of political violence, widespread hunger, hyperinflation and keenly contested elections that threatened to end Mugabe's nearly three decades of rule.

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and now prime minister, withdrew from the second round of the presidential poll - after narrowly failing to win the first round outright - in protest over the deaths of scores of activists, and the torture of hundreds if not thousands more.

Mukoko, head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a non-governmental organization that detailed human rights abuses such as gang rape and political violence allegedly perpetrated by the security forces, patiently transcribed the harrowing experiences of those who survived while they recuperated in hospitals or safe houses, fearing further arrests.

The international community, including African election monitors, declared Mugabe's uncontested presidential victory as hollow. On 15 September 2008, ZANU-PF and the MDC signed a power-sharing agreement, but it was only enacted in February 2009 with the formation of the unity government. The intervening months were marked by increased reports of state violence, meticulously documented by Mukoko.

"I am so relieved to know that the charges against me have been dropped, but I think the victory was only possible because of the support from the international community, fellow journalists and colleagues in civic society, and human rights defenders," she told IRIN.

The abduction

In the early hours of 13 December 2008 a group of masked men and a woman hauled Mukoko from her bed, and under the terrified gaze of her teenage son, bundled her into an unmarked car and disappeared as fast as they had arrived.

''I view the judgment in a positive sense, in that it resulted in a reform of the judiciary, especially at a time when the country is going through a constitution-making process''
Dressed in only her nightdress, her prescription medicine left by her bedside, she disappeared without a trace. Over the next few days, then weeks, people expected her body to be found by the roadside, or stumbled upon in a shallow grave by someone collecting firewood in the bush.

In fact, she was constantly being moved from one police station to another and other places of detention. Disorientated and suffering round after round of interrogation, during which she was made to kneel on gravel, punctuated with beatings on the soles of her feet, to try to force her to admit she was recruiting Zimbabweans for military training in neighbouring Botswana.

On 2 March 2009, a month after the unity government was formed, amid a furore over her detention by local and international journalists as well as human rights organizations, she was released on bail. She immediately filed a court challenge over the manner of her "arrest", and violation of her human rights.

Emotional scars 

"I view the judgment in a positive sense, in that it resulted in a reform of the judiciary, especially at a time when the country is going through a constitution-making process, and that the same charges brought against other activists will be dropped," she said.

''I am a widowed mother, and what I went through brought a lot of trauma to my family, especially to my son, who did not know if he had lost the only remaining parent that he had''
The emotional scars of her ordeal are still fresh. "It is difficult at this stage to give a detailed account of what I went through because it is such an emotional subject. I would really have to psych up for that kind of discussion."

The question that Mukoko cannot answer is why she was targeted for abduction. "It has been suggested that it may have been because of the work that our organization was doing, but I was shocked that I was being charged for recruiting people to undergo military training."

The ordeal has not deterred her or her organization from documenting human rights abuses. "I am a widowed mother, and what I went through brought a lot of trauma to my family, especially to my son, who did not know if he had lost the only remaining parent that he had."

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Theme(s): Governance, Human Rights, Conflict,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]