Global Policy Forum

Zimbabwe Tells All Aid Groups to Halt Efforts


By Celia W. Dugger

New York Times
June 6, 2008

Zimbabwe's government has ordered all humanitarian aid groups to suspend their operations in the deeply impoverished nation, a prohibition that relief agencies estimate will deprive two million people of food aid and other basic assistance.

The government had already barred CARE, one of the world's largest aid groups, from providing humanitarian aid in the country, accusing it of siding with the political opposition before a presidential runoff this month. But Nicholas Goche, Zimbabwe's social welfare minister, greatly expanded the ban this week, applying it to all nongovernmental organizations working in a country where the economy is in shambles, unemployment has surpassed 80 percent and people are locked in an increasingly desperate struggle to survive.

As news of the government's decision leaked out Thursday, the police detained American and British diplomats investigating political violence north of the capital and released them only after a harrowing ordeal that included a six-mile car chase and threats to burn the diplomats alive in their vehicle, American officials said. The rough treatment signaled a further escalation of a campaign of intimidation and violence that governing party insiders say is being coordinated by President Robert Mugabe and a small clique of police, intelligence and military officials intent on winning the runoff and extending their 28 years in power.

Aid workers and human rights groups say the suspension of humanitarian operations and the detention of the diplomats are part of the governing party's strategy to clear the countryside of witnesses to its brutal efforts to decimate the political opposition and drive its supporters out of the wards in which they are eligible to vote. ZANU-PF, the governing party, is clearly determined to go ahead with the runoff in the hope of preserving a veneer of legitimacy for a government that is increasingly viewed internationally as a pariah, and the party is trying to win it at any cost, Zimbabwean political analysts say.

At an emergency meeting on Thursday in Harare, the capital, United Nations agencies and aid groups agreed to protest the suspension and issue a statement about its humanitarian implications, according to the minutes of the meeting. The nongovernmental organizations there worried about the safety of their field staff once the prohibition order reaches local administrators across the country. The list of targets for state-sponsored intimidation in Zimbabwe just keeps getting longer. First and foremost, it includes opposition officials and supporters, but also takes aim at civic leaders, trade unionists, election monitors, journalists, human rights lawyers, teachers, churchgoers - and now aid workers and diplomats.

The American ambassador to Zimbabwe, James D. McGee, said the police tried to run the American diplomats off the road during a six-mile chase, then slashed the tires of their S.U.V. at a roadblock. War veterans, the often violent agents of the state, subsequently threatened to set fire to the Americans' vehicle with them inside, and tried to bash in the windows with their rifle butts. A Zimbabwean driver who brought the embassy's security officer to the scene was hauled from the car, beaten and tossed in a ditch, Mr. McGee said. The decision to chase the diplomats and hold them for hours was sanctioned by Augustine Chihuri, the country's powerful police commissioner, Mr. McGee said. And it was intended to intimidate diplomats who have been documenting the brutal beatings of supporters of Zimbabwe's political opposition ahead of the runoff, he contended.

"The bottom line is this: Zimbabwe is a lawless country," said Mr. McGee, who was not on the trip on Thursday but was briefly detained at a roadblock last month on another investigative trip. "The government is trying to intimidate diplomats from traveling to the countryside in order to witness the violence." A police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena, denied that the diplomats had been threatened and told The Associated Press that the police were only trying to rescue them from a mob. "It's unfortunate when diplomats behave like criminals and distort information," he said.

The detention of the American diplomats, and four British officials who arrived at the roadblock a couple of hours later, came a day after the police in another province, Matabeleland, detained the opposition presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, for nine hours and seized the armored vehicle his party says is necessary for his security. Mr. Tsvangirai was viciously beaten by the police in a crackdown last year. Party officials said the police accused Mr. Tsvangirai on Wednesday of addressing a rally without their permission. Mr. Tsvangirai resumed campaigning on Thursday.

A State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said the detention of the diplomats was "a case of the kind of repression and violence this government is willing to use against its own people." And a White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said that the episode "won't be forgotten." ritain's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Karen Pierce, said in an interview that the treatment of the diplomats was "symptomatic in a small way of much wider intimidation and violence that ordinary Zimbabweans are experiencing in the run-up to the elections."

Opposition officials have voiced deep disappointment that regional intervention to halt the violence before the runoff, now only three weeks away, has been weak and tardy. Marie Okabe, a United Nations spokeswoman, said Mr. Mugabe agreed to receive a senior United Nations official, Haile Menkarious, after meeting on Tuesday with the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in Rome. Mr. Ban highlighted the need to stop the violence, she said.

Mr. McGee, who has been accused by Mr. Mugabe of meddling in the country's affairs and has been threatened with expulsion, said Thursday's episode began as American and British diplomats met with opposition figures in a slum in Bindura, in Mashonaland Central Province. The police approached the diplomats and asked them to go to the station. The senior American diplomat on the trip, Lt. Col. Ryan McMullen, the defense attaché, then got on his cellphone with Mr. McGee, who told him to get the American team back into the two vehicles and head home to Harare. Mr. McGee said it was unlawful under diplomatic protocols for officials who are breaking no laws to be taken to a local police station for questioning. "This is where it gets interesting," Mr. McGee said later in an interview.

One of the two cars carrying the Americans took a route along back roads and evaded the police. The British went yet another way. And the third car, a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying Colonel McMullen, went on the main road. The police followed the Toyota. It turned into a chase. The police tried to force the Toyota off the road, driving up beside it and almost sideswiping it, Mr. McGee said. Ultimately, though, the Toyota was forced to stop at a roadblock because of spikes that would have blown out the tires. The police quickly slashed all four tires anyway, he said.

It was about 11 or 11:30 a.m. The three Americans and two Zimbabweans in the car were ordered to get out. "My people said, 'That's just not going to happen,'" Mr. McGee said. Then two riot vehicles loaded with 17 soldiers pulled up and blocked in the Americans' car. "It gets worse," Mr. McGee said. About a dozen war veterans appeared. "They threatened to burn people alive in the vehicle if they don't get out," he said. "They tried to forcefully remove them, tried to smash the windows with their rifles."

Mr. McGee had dispatched the embassy security officer and another accredited diplomat. When they arrived on the scene about 1:30 p.m., the security officer got out of his car, but the police grabbed him, took his radio and physically held him, Mr. McGee said. In the meantime, Mr. McGee said the Foreign Ministry's protocol section refused to take his calls. Back at the roadblock, the governor of the province had arrived. "Instead of trying to defuse the situation, he started to berate my people." Mr. McGee said. Finally, about 4:30, the diplomats were released.

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