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one-man court of last resort: Tsunga helps victims navigate Zimbabwe's
Human Rights Watch
October 18, 2007
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crisis in Zimbabwe has pushed millions out of their homes, prompted
countless abuses at official hands and left the country isolated,
its people virtually powerless to seek redress.
Foreign journalists are
rarely allowed entry into the country. Human Rights Watch is one
of the few international organizations able to gather a picture
of the worsening conditions in the country, and the scenario is
As many as 3
million Zimbabwean refugees have fled into neighboring South Africa,
threatening the stability of the entire region. Zimbabweans have
the shortest life expectancy world-wide: the average life span has
halved to only 35 years old today from 69 in 2000, according to
the World Health Organization. The World Food Program says that
up to 4 million people are in urgent need of food aid, and at around
7,000 percent, Zimbabwe's inflation rate is the highest in the world.
These distressing quantifications
illustrate Zimbabwe's fall from shining beacon of Southern Africa
after the country's independence from British colonial rule. But
despite these numbers the international community seems unable to
figure out how to improve the situation in Zimbabwe. And the statistics,
however ugly, do little for the litigant seeking legal redress for
official abuse or government disenfranchisement. This is lawyers'
work, which is where Arnold Tsunga steps in.
- a "key contact" in Zimbabwe, according to Human Rights
Watch researchers - is the Executive Director of Zimbabwe
Lawyers for Human Rights, an organization that represents victims
of human rights abuses and campaigns for respect for human rights
in Zimbabwean courts.
In Zimbabwe, political
dissent carries extreme consequences.
For Arnold, the path
from commercial lawyer to leading human rights defender began in
2002 with a kick to the stomach. He was traveling with colleagues
to visit a client when a distraught woman on the road stopped his
car. As he talked to the woman, soldiers came upon the group and,
without explanation, began beating everyone they could get their
hands on. The group was then dragged to a police station, where
again they were beaten. Speaking to the police commander in the
station, Tsunga demanded that someone be held accountable for the
But, he said, "Driving
back home I realized a lawyer can't sit back and be quiet in this
sort of declining legal environment." In an afternoon, Tsunga's
life trajectory had changed. His wife was not surprised. His colleagues,
however, advised him to leave well enough alone. "They felt
I was making a huge error," Tsunga said in a telephone interview
from his office in Zimbabwe.
But Tsunga was not to
be deterred, and has spent the past four years seeking justice for
the victims of Robert Mugabe's authoritarian regime.
Writing in the Wall Street
Journal in 2006, Tsunga explained his motivations and his work.
"After working for many years as a commercial lawyer in Mutare,
I was abducted, tortured and threatened for simply defending individuals
who stood in the way of Mr. Mugabe. My co-workers and I have been
arrested and dragged to the courts for trying to document and create
an official record of government abuses. Some people ask me why
I bother using the legal system when the deck is so stacked against
us. I answer that there is still a semblance of a court system and
some brave judges who will uphold the law. But they are operating
in straitjackets and desperately need support to continue doing
the right thing."
Tsunga also acts as executive
secretary of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, chair of the Zimbabwe
Human Rights Association and a trustee of a private radio station,
Voice of the People. Each of these organizations has been targeted
and persecuted by the Zimbabwean government. Tsunga fears that this
litany of oppression, which has already lasted longer than he feared,
could trigger a deadly backlash.
"I thought it would
be a space of one or two years before Zimbabwe returns to some form
of normality. But the ability for this government to persevere is
the real surprise," Tsunga said. "If the country continues
along the path it is on, there is a real danger for wide-spread
and deep violence in the country."
Tsunga lays the blame
squarely at Mugabe's feet. "Mugabe had a lot of credibility
as a liberator," he said. "But sometime in 2000 to 2002,
we realized that we had rationalized his totalitarian tendencies.
Mugabe is the main driver of the systemic abuses taking place in
the country. He is now the symbol of evil." For Tsunga, it
is Mugabe's ability to "sustain evil" that is the real
But he does
not see politics as the venue for his battle against Mugabe. "I
don't have political ambitions but I have a strong sense of community
service," he said. "I get motivated by what is happening
around me, not depressed. The more the system tries to humiliate
human rights defenders, the more it tries to rob people of dignity,
the more I get motivated to help change circumstances in this country."
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