NEWS

Mugabe tightens grip on critics

With little over one month before national elections in Zimbabwe and only one day after the EU threatened President Robert Mugabe with economic and diplomatic sanctions if there was no improvement in his country’s human rights situation within a week, an international anti-torture group has expressed concern about the safety of its workers. Newspapers loyal to President Mugabe have in recent weeks launched a campaign to discredit the Amani Trust, the local medical rehabilitation center for torture victims, a longstanding daughter organization in Zimbabwe of the International Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims (IRCT). The latest article was published this weekend in The Mail on Sunday newspaper, which declared that «at the forefront of support of the destabilization program, which is aimed at creating anarchy and lawlessness countrywide, is a hitherto obscure organization calling itself the Amani Trust.» It is reports like this that have alarmed the Copenhagen-based IRCT, an umbrella organization with over 200 anti-torture centers worldwide, and funded by the European Union and the United Nations. «The Amani Trust is a member of the IRCT and its director, psychology professor Anthony Reeler, is a member of the executive committee of the international council. His work in defending human rights is known internationally,» Dr Maria Piniou-Kalli, president of IRCT and medical director of the local center in Athens, said in a statement yesterday. President Mugabe in recent months introduced several legislative bills which later were passed into law, which further restrict press freedom, ban foreign monitors from the country and further harass non-governmental groups already in the country. EU foreign ministers said on Monday that Mugabe had failed so far to restore the rule of law, press freedom and independence of the judiciary and said «targeted sanctions» would be implemented if no improvement is evident by February 3. The EU wants to have European observers in Zimbabwe to monitor the campaign for the March 9-10 presidential elections in which Mugabe, whose ZANU-FP party holds 93 of the 150 parliamentary seats, wants to extend his 22-year rule. The Amani Trust, which prior to the June 24, 2000 elections in Zimbabwe had been crucial in verifying cases of torture and providing therapy to the victims of forces loyal to Mugabe, now appears to be at the center of Mugabe’s campaign to drive NGOs out of the country. «Despite claims by Reeler that his organization assists all victims of political violence regardless of their political affiliations, the recently closed safe houses funded by his organization harbored criminals and murderers being sought by law-enforcement agencies. It is against this background that the Amani Trust’s activities should be looked at and investigated,» The Mail on Sunday declared in its article. The paper went on to say that the harboring of criminals makes Reeler and his organization «accomplices in acts of terror and mayhem that are being perpetrated by MDC killer cells.» The IRCT reacted strongly over the allegations. «During an observation mission prior to the elections of 2000 in this country and in my capacity as president of the IRCT, I met with torture victims and I declare that all torture victims that I examined and verified had been victimized by followers of Mugabe’s party, and I presented my findings at a meeting of ambassadors held at the offices of the EU representative at Harare,» Dr Piniou-Kalli said. «The allegations by the government papers against Anthony Reeler and the Amani Trust are false and baseless, and they are trying to turn the victimizer Mugabe into a victim.» The poor human rights record of Zimbabwe has alarmed the European Union, and officials say the EU may cut 128 million euros in aid for the 2002-2007 period, ban travel to the EU by Zimbabwean officials and freeze Zimbabwean assets in Europe. Over the past two years, the EU has already reduced annual development aid in Zimbabwe from 30 million euros to 5 million euros.