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Activists outmanoeuvred but undeterred
Tonderai Kwidini, Inter Press Service (IPS)
October 24, 2007

Anti-death penalty activists in Zimbabwe are keeping up their campaign, despite a police clampdown on their meetings and ever-lengthening food queues, power cuts and the relentless rise in prices of many essential items.

"It is now very difficult to obtain police clearance to hold gatherings. Everything we try to do to bring people together is viewed by the police as a political event," John Chinamurungu, Amnesty International's chairperson in Zimbabwe, told IPS. "It's very difficult to get campaigns going."

Amnesty and the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and the Rehabilitation of Offenders (Zacro) have been co-operating closely to rally public support for the abolition of the death penalty and to get the issue on the national political agenda.

Zacro's new engagement follows an opinion article by an official of the organisation in the state-owned daily, 'The Herald', last January. This announced the opening of a carefully-scripted Zacro campaign, details of which were later outlined to IPS by Edson Chiota, the organisation's national co-ordinator.

The plan included carrying the message of abolition to Zimbabwe's 13 million citizens with the printing and distribution of millions of posters and pamphlets.

But campaigning has been hit by the speed and scale of the unfolding economic crisis. In January the year-on-year official inflation rate was 1,600 percent. In September it reached 7,982.1 percent, according to the government's Central Statistical Office. Unofficially, the rate is said to be approaching 25,000 percent.

Paper and fuel, essential for a nationwide campaign, are almost impossible to obtain.

The struggle to exist from day to day is now uppermost on people's minds. In the capital, Harare, hour-long queues for bread are normal. Earlier this month, the agriculture ministry announced that the wheat harvest was two-thirds of what was required. Shortly afterwards, the official price of bread was increased by 300 percent.

"There are millions in Zimbabwe who need food assistance," Richard Lee of the United Nations World Food Programme, said in August. It was estimated then that some 3.3 million would require the agency's help to survive over the coming months.

Authorities have responded to any street protest or show of dissent by rushing in riot police, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

But despite the unfolding catastrophe, Amnesty and Zacro have refused to be cowed into calling off their sensitisation workshops on the death penalty.

Amnesty's local vice-chairperson, Francis Mweene, has been a notable participant, having survived death row. He was sentenced to death in white-ruled Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was known before it gained independence in 1980.

"It was a big surprise to me that I found myself able to live again. It was because Amnesty Zimbabwe stood for my right to life," he told IPS, recalling how the organisation's international contacts helped pull him back from the jaws of death.

"It is through testimonies that I think people can be sensitised and understand why we are advocating against (the) death (sentence)."

Mweene's leading of the testimonies clearly makes it difficult for the authorities to step in and ban such meetings. Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, led a liberation war against the Ian Smith regime and would certainly have ended up on death row like Mweene had he been captured.

Alongside these meetings, Amnesty has been issuing T-Shirts emblazoned with anti-death penalty slogans.

In July, Zacro tried to persuade traditional leaders in the Council of Chiefs to support its anti-death penalty campaign. The chiefs were holding their annual meeting in Harare and the northern resort of Victoria Falls.

But politicians were clearly not willing to see this happen. They stepped in to prevent the death penalty issue being tabled at the meeting, according to sources.

"We hoped to start with the chiefs and use them as leverage to get this issue into the House of Assembly and eventually seek out an audience with the head of state," Chakanyuka told IPS.

The chiefs could have raised the issue in parliament, where they sit by appointment.

Zacro's focus on the chiefs fitted into the initial thrust of the campaign, which argued that the death penalty was "alien and contrary to traditional African concepts of justice and beliefs".

The meeting also showed that opinion among the officially-supported chiefs was divided on the death penalty issue.

"You should be given a sentence in accordance with your crime. If you deliberately kill, you should also be killed," Chief Makoni told the meeting, according to a press report at the time in the privately-owned 'Financial Gazette'.

It has been suggested that the chiefs might have been less than enthusiastic about being associated with such a controversial issue and bringing it before Mugabe, for fear of losing their privileges. They are essentially on the government payroll.

"With the elections coming there is no chance we will be able to talk to the chiefs again until afterwards," a disappointed Chakanyuka said.

The polls -- presidential, parliamentary and local government -- are expected to be held in six months.

Zacro is now planning to circulate a nation-wide petition calling for abolition of the death penalty.

"We want to present a petition to President Mugabe since he is the man who has been vested with all the powers to decide if one should be sent to the gallows or not," Chakanyuka said.

Mugabe has resisted all calls for the repeal of the death penalty, which dates back to the colonial era, in his 27 years of rule -- and is unlikely to change his mind now, in the twilight of his beleaguered regime.

But by campaigning on this issue now and associating the retention of capital punishment more closely with his name, it may be hoped that one of the first measures to be adopted by his successors will be the abolition of the death penalty.

Zacro is also hoping that its campaign will stimulate public interest in further penal reforms.

The last execution in Zimbabwe was carried out in 2004. Since 1999 seven people have been executed by hanging, according to Zacro.

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