November 10, 2008
GABORONE, BOTSWANA -- Former United Nations ambassador Stephen Lewis is spearheading an effort to bring to justice perpetrators of politically motivated sexual violence in Zimbabwe, a powerful addition to existing attempts to hold Robert Mugabe's regime accountable for gross human-rights violations.
AIDS-Free World, an advocacy group founded last year by Mr. Lewis, is quietly collecting the testimony of women who survived gang rapes by leaders in Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, after the Zimbabwean President lost the first round of presidential elections in March.
Over the past week, international human-rights lawyers enlisted by Mr. Lewis collected sworn affidavits from eight women, all of them supporters or organizers for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change who were raped and brutally beaten after elections this past spring.
Each of the women described how her attackers, who openly identified themselves with Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, made clear that she was to be the victim of a systematic policy of punishment because she dared to challenge Mr. Mugabe's rule.
The stories the women tell are harrowing. "When they were finished with me, I could no longer stand," said Carol, 39, an MDC supporter from the southwest of Zimbabwe. (The identities of the women have been confirmed by The Globe and Mail but pseudonyms have been used here for their protection.) The ZANU militia men who had detained her made her crawl on her belly to the bored bureaucrat holding a list and sitting nearby, and tick off her name to acknowledge that she had had her punishment. "Mine was the fourth name on the list for that day." Her name crossed off, they moved on.
This is not the first effort to collect evidence of crimes against humanity committed by the Mugabe regime: Several Zimbabwean human-rights organizations are also working to gather and preserve evidence of state-sponsored human-rights abuses, which have typified the recent years of Mr. Mugabe's rule but exploded after the Zimbabwean leader lost the first round of the presidential election to the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai, the first open challenge to his authority in 28 years.
But Mr. Lewis's organization has some advantages. The AIDS-Free World team, which is U.S.-based, can operate much more freely than Zimbabwean lawyers and activists. Plus they have, through Mr. Lewis's long years as a politician and diplomat, access to resources and to influential people. The lawyers involved are experts in the field, some of whom have prosecuted war crimes and are donating their time.
"We're in a position to collect durable sworn affidavits that would hold up in any proceeding, so that if we end up somewhere like the International Criminal Court, a defence lawyer will not be able to throw it out," Mr. Lewis said in a telephone interview from Canada.
"The affidavits bear out that these attacks were directed at the political opposition in a very methodical way - the women chosen were chosen because they were part of the political opposition and the links made to ZANU-PF are unassailable."
Long concerned about the implosion of Zimbabwe, Mr. Lewis, the former UN special envoy for AIDS in Africa, was horrified to learn last summer from Betty Makoni, a firebrand Zimbabwean human-rights activist with whom he has worked on AIDS issues, about the systematic campaign of gang rape that accompanied the first election and the runoff vote in late June. Mr. Lewis and his co-director and long-time colleague Paula Donovan were soon making calls to try to figure out what they could do - to help victims, but equally important, to try to end the gross impunity with which Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF have operated.