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Monday, 29 May 2006

Under Siege: Zimbabwe's Human Rights Defenders; Jenni Williams

Earlier this month, security agents in Zimbabwe told Jenni Williams that if she continues to organize demonstrations she is going to pay for it with her life.

Williams received the threat upon being released from jail. She and 165 other WOZA activists had been arrested for demonstrating against a hike in public school fees.

"Jenni Williams complained that the officer in charge of the law and order section, Detective Assistant Inspector Ndlovu, threatened her with death should she ever engage in similar conduct in future," said Kossam Ncube, a lawyer from Job Sibanda and Associates who represents Williams and WOZA (ZimOnline, May 16, 2006).

They were all released five days later because prosecutors would not take them to court.

Williams and the women who make up Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), have organized and taken part in more protest marches than any other group in Zimbabwe.

They have also had more experience of the callousness, heavy-handedness, and brutality with which security agents in Zimbabwe deal with perceived opponents of President Robert Mugabe's regime.

WOZA members have endured severe beatings at the hands of the police. They have had police dogs set on them. They have been detained for hours, and sometimes days, in over-crowded and lice-ridden cells where the communal toilets do not flush. While in detention, the women have been threatened, assaulted, and deprived of food and access to lawyers by the police.

Williams said WOZA was founded to give Zimbabwean women a voice and platform with which to exercise their rights.

"Things are very tough economically, socially, politically and we felt that women were bearing the brunt of that crisis and should have the loudest voice in shouting out … and holding the political leaders accountable for what they've unleashed," Williams said.

Williams maintains that to her and other WOZA activists, the arrests are a symbol, a potent reminder that exercising one's fundamental rights can carry serious risk.

WOZA activist Patricia Tshabalala

©2003 Jenni Williams
She describes WOZA activists as "volunteers for arrest and possible beatings."

In February 2003, Williams and WOZA organized a Valentine's Day march to protest against political violence and draw attention to the worsening economic situation. Women marched through the streets of Bulawayo and Harare handing out red roses.

In both cities, police descended on the women, broke up the marches, and arrested and detained protestors under the provisions of the repressive Public Order and Security Act (POSA).

POSA gives police sweeping powers, which they have used to harass, intimidate, and detain real and perceived opponents of the Mugabe regime.

Since 2002, security agents have used POSA to target human rights activists and to restrict rights to freedom of association and expression.

The police used POSA again in November 2003. They arrested Williams in Bulawayo for taking part in a demonstration organized by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

"My WOZA colleagues insisted that they would accompany me to be arrested and invited the huge crowd of upwards 1,000 to come along too, which they did!" Williams writes in an open letter available on Kubatana.net.

When they got to the station, the police released Williams because the crowd that had been following them had become agitated.

A few minutes later, three vehicles and more than a hundred riot police confronted the protestors and ordered them to disperse.

"The officer with the megaphone told his troops to advance and dogs were brought out. They advanced and people began to walk away calmly but the officer ordered us to be beaten. Riot police prodded us in the back saying we should disperse, the officer egged them on, and they started to prod us telling us to run. We answered back saying we would not run as the dogs would bite us. Run we were told and beaten until some of us ran and of course the dogs bit several people."

Several WOZA activists and campaigners sustained serious injuries from the beatings they received at the hands of the police. Others were hospitalized after being mauled by police dogs.

More than 4,000 members of WOZA have been arrested under POSA and related laws since 2003. None has been successfully prosecuted.

Despite the frequent arrests and the equally frequent beatings meted out by the police, Williams and WOZA continue to organize peaceful demonstrations, regularly taking to the streets in Harare, Bulawayo, and other parts of the country.

Williams was nominated for this year's Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

In their citation, the organizers of the award said Williams was chosen because she "continues to organize and lead peaceful protests against the erosion of human rights, in spite of having been arrested and beaten by the police."

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

Thursday, 25 May 2006

Church of England Attacks Government Policy On Asylum Seekers

An interfaith commission set up by the Church of England has attacked the country's draconian system of 'asylum.'

The commissioners criticised the way the threat of destitution was being used as a way of deterring refugees from seeking asylum and condemned the enforced poverty suffered by unsuccessful asylum seekers.

The Church of England's Commission on Urban Life and Faith noted that asylum policy in Britain was being driven by "popular xenophobia" and was being sustained by a large section of the press "on a political terrain influenced by fanaticism."

As a result asylum seekers were being needlessly forced into a life of fear, extreme poverty and destitution and are being made more vulnerable to attacks and exploitation even from the very people, institutions and structures that are supposed to be protecting them.

According to media reports, in May 2006, a senior Home Office immigration officer was suspended after allegations that he offered to help an 18-year-old Zimbabwean rape victim obtain asylum in the U.K. if she had sex with him. Earlier this year three other Home Office immigration officers from Lunar House admitted having sex with visa applicants in exchange for helping facilitate their applications. One of the men was dismissed, the second resigned and the third was disciplined internally.

"We live in one of the most economically unequal countries in Europe and not only has the 'trickle down' promise of market forces failed to deliver but a draconian asylum system consigns a small section of the population to unacceptable destitution," the Commission on Urban Life and Faith said.

The commissioners, who included Muslim and Jewish representatives and members of all the main Christian churches, spent two years gathering evidence from all over the United Kingdom. They found that "endemic antipathy and racism" among many young people left them vulnerable to exploitation by religious and political extremists.

In "Faithful Cities: A call for celebration, vision and justice," a report published on May 22, the Commission urged the British government to lead rather than follow public opinion on immigration, refugees and asylum policy.

"Specifically, asylum seekers should be allowed to sustain themselves and contribute to society through paid work," the commissioners said.

At present, people fleeing persecution are not allowed to work during the first year of their application for political asylum. They can apply for permission to work after those 12 months but even then permission to work is not always granted.

Those who, in the mean time, have had their applications for refuge turned down are strictly prohibited from working.

The Asylum and Immigration Act of 2004 removes any welfare benefits and housing help from families of asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected and who have "failed to take reasonable steps" to leave Britain. The Act sanctions the removal of housing support from failed asylum seekers unless they agree to leave Britain. If parents refuse to sign forms to say they will leave the country, they are made homeless and their children taken into care.

"It is unacceptable to use destitution as a tool of coercion when dealing with 'refused' asylum seekers," the Commission on Urban Life and Faith said.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, endorse the Commission's report.

Bishop Bernard Longley, an Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Westminster and member of the Catholic Bishops' Conference Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, also expressed his support for "Faithful Cities."

"The report examines how urban regeneration projects have failed to improve the lives of many people who live in British cities. For example, although the re-building of cities has brought new opportunities and prosperity, it has also resulted in fear, racial tension and the tendency to treat neighbours as strangers," Bishop Longley said.

Commenting on the report, musician and civil rights activist, Sheila Mosley told of how one asylum seeker she is in contact with was discovered working without permission.

"The police confiscated the four hundred pounds (£400) wages that was in his bank account that he had earned and paid tax on," she said.

"There are prisoners in Strangeways whose only crime was to work their way out of destitution rather than have to rob people because of destitution," she added.

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council welcomed the commission's report, describing it as "acutely observed and timely" and "a wake-up call to politicians to give a lead to public opinion."

"If they [the politicians] fail to do so, the losers, as 'Faithful Cities' points out, are those asylum seekers living in extreme hardship or forced into destitution in order to 'encourage' them to leave the UK," Sherlock said.

"What's needed is moral leadership, helping to inform everyone about our obligations to those who have fled persecution and sought sanctuary in the UK."

She emphasised that the commission had rightly described using destitution as a tool of coercion when dealing with refused asylum as 'unacceptable.'

"These are vulnerable people and to 'encourage' them to leave the U.K. by the prospect of starvation is inhumane and unnecessary," Maeve Sherlock said.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

Forcing Refugee Children Into Care

Refugee charities are urging the British government to ditch its plans of snatching the children of asylum seekers from their families and forcing them into care.

When an asylum seeker's claim has failed, Section 9 of the country's Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act of 2004 allows the British Home Office to withdraw support if they are not taking "reasonable steps" to return to their country of origin. Local authorities will generally continue to support the children of a failed asylum seeker, but can only support adult members the family if failing to do so will lead to a breach of their human rights.

Section 9 creates a risk that asylum seekers and their families will be left destitute and their children taken into care.

Since December 2004, Section 9 has been implemented in three pilot areas: Central/East London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. So far, 116 families, including 219 children and 36 adult dependents have been affected, from countries which include Pakistan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A report into the 12-month pilot by the Refugee Council and Refugee Action, titled "Inhumane and Ineffective — Section 9 in Practice," highlights the misery caused by Section 9 and its complete failure to achieve its aims.

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, says:

"When it launched Section 9, the government said the aim was to encourage families to return home, and not to make them destitute. This report shows that it has achieved the complete opposite result. Families have been made homeless, had their support removed and are living in fear of having their children taken into care, and yet almost none have taken steps to leave the U.K. Section 9 is inhumane and ineffective and should be dropped immediately."

The report, which was released in January 2006, is based on work carried out by the Refugee Council and Refugee Action in Leeds, London and Manchester.

The report reveals that out of the 116 families affected by the pilot implementation of Section 9, only one family has left the U.K.; at the most three families have signed up for voluntary return; at least 32 families, or more than a quarter of those affected, have gone underground; and 80 percent of the parents on the pilot had mental health problems that have been made worse by Section 9.

"This is a harsh and ill thought out policy based on the flawed logic that making families destitute and threatening to take their children into care will coerce them into going home," Maeve Sherlock says.

The families affected are reluctant to return to their countries of origin because the countries are unsafe. Many of the families are at risk of arrest, torture, detention and death at the hands of agents of the state should they return to their countries of origin.

In October 2005, three judges in the British Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ruled, in a test case, that a Zimbabwean asylum seeker, who cannot be named for legal reasons, would be at risk if he were sent back to Harare. One of the results of this ruling is that the British Home Office cannot return Zimbabweans to that country because to do so would be in violation of the tribunal's ruling.

The Guardian (Jan. 29) reports that the implementation of Section 9 has also provoked a backlash by social workers who are now reluctant to cooperate with the Home Office.

Sandy Buchan, chief executive of Refugee Action describes the policy as "cruel and unworkable." She says it is causing enormous suffering to vulnerable families and has completely failed to deliver on its objectives.

"To threaten parents with the loss of their children if they don't sign a form that says they want to go home is unjust and inhumane. The proper place for all children, regardless of their immigration status, is with their parents.

"Destitution and family separation should not be used as deliberate tools of coercion by any civilized society. This policy is essentially troubling as it has come at a time when there is increasing doubt over whether or not some asylum seekers receive a full and fair hearing of their claim," Buchan says.

A Children's Society spokesperson expressed concern that some children are now being denied access to health care, housing and education.

"We know of 35 families who have gone underground, losing all contact with authorities and so denied access to basic health care, housing and education as a result of these government pilots.

"Regardless of the outcome of an asylum claim, it is never justified to punish children for the actions of adults," the spokesperson said.

In November 2005, an investigation by the leading children's charity, Barnardo's and the Refugee Children's Consortium revealed the serious damage being done to vulnerable children by the British government's asylum and immigration policy.

Barnardo's urged the British government to uphold the principle that refugee children are children first and foremost, and U.K. asylum policy should protect their welfare as a first principle.

Alison Webster, principal policy officer for Barnardo's also said children should not be used as a tool for enforcing immigration decisions.

"For them, their parents are often the only stable part of their lives," she said.

In "Breaking the Cycle: Taking Stock of Progress and Priorities for the Future" (September 2004), the British government's Social Exclusion Unit points out that refugees, asylum seekers, and children living in poverty or in local authority care are at risk of social exclusion.

The report also says experience of the care system is found in cohort study analysis to increase greatly the likelihood of negative outcomes, most notably the chances of contact with the police.

"Young people who have experienced institutional care are significantly more at risk of social exclusion than other young people; they are likely to leave school without qualifications, end up in prison, and to become homeless," the report says.

Writer and human rights activist Siobhan Logan condemned the British government's "cavalier" attitude towards separating children from their families.

"It is extraordinary how cavalier the British government can be about separating children from their families. They have done it in the past with working class families who were British. They are doing it now with children of asylum seekers whose applications have been refused but who still cannot go back to their countries of origin because the countries are unsafe," she said.

Logan accused the government of criminalizing asylum seekers and refugees.

"Asylum seekers are already in a very vulnerable position and then face destitution and exclusion at the hands of government policy here. They have become a political football for our media and political parties who promote the idea that asylum seekers are sponging off us.

"Asylum seekers are the modern scapegoats — what Jews were in an earlier period or Irish or Asian immigrants after them. This shambolic government deflects attention from its own shortcomings by trying to criminalize the poor," she said.

This article was first published in the World Press Review.

Sunday, 21 May 2006

Under Siege: Zimbabwe's Human Rights Defenders; High Court Judge Benjamin Paradza

Former High Court Judge Benjamin Paradza fears for his wife and three children who are still under the surveillance of security agents in Zimbabwe.

He has reason to be afraid.

Since coming to power in 1980, President Robert G. Mugabe's government has always dealt severely with opposition political parties and their supporters, real or perceived.

In April 1983, for example, the regime's Fifth Brigade military unit targeted defenseless civilians, who Mugabe referred to as supporters of dissidents, and subjected thousands of them to severe beatings and destroyed their homes. The Fifth Brigade went on to murder more than 2,000 civilians.

The military unit would routinely round up dozens, or even hundreds, of civilians and march them to a central place, such as a school or a communal borehole. There, the civilians were forced to sing songs praising the ruling political party, Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), while at the same time were beat with sticks. The gatherings invariably ended with the public execution of officials from the opposition political party, Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU).

The regime's heavy handedness and hostility towards political opponents or ordinary Zimbabweans who disagreed with how ZANU was running the country did not end with the signing of the Unity Accord between ZANU and ZAPU in 1987. The accord led to ZAPU merging with ZANU and the formation of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and was part of efforts to stop the mass killings of civilians by Mugabe's Fifth Brigade in the Ndebele provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands during the early to late 80's.

The regime has used its parliamentary majority to amend the constitution more than 20 times to tighten Mugabe's hold on power and quash all forms of dissent -- the most notable amendment being the abolition of the prime minister's position, which led to the creation of an executive presidency in 1987. Repressive legislation such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (2002) has made it a crime to practice journalism without a government license.

Paradza did what all judges in Zimbabwe are supposed to do: He looked at the cases before him and interpreted what the law said.

In the 1990s, he allowed Econet, an independent telephone services provider, to set up a mobile telephone network contrary to the regime's intention to retain control of who can have access to or provide telephone services. In 2000, Paradza declared the land reform program illegal and, in the same year, he ruled that the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation's monopoly on the airwaves was illegal.

The following year, he declared as unconstitutional a ban Mugabe imposed on challenging in court the results of the much-contested 2000 parliamentary elections.

In July 2002, Paradza acquitted a journalist in a media test case and, in the same month, he sentenced Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa to three months in jail for contempt of court because the minister had failed to appear in court to respond to charges relating to his criticism of the High Court.

The following year, Paradza ordered the release of Elias Mudzuri, mayor of Harare, and a member of opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and 21 other MDC members who had been arrested for holding a town meeting under a provision of the draconian Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which dictates that police permission must be obtained for any gathering of more than two people if the police declares the meeting to be "a threat to public order."

Mudzuri signaled that the nation's capital had become an MDC stronghold when he became the first executive mayor of Harare. He also became the first target in a campaign by the Mugabe regime to destroy the MDC.

By being impartial and refusing to be influenced by outside forces, Paradza was setting himself up for a major confrontation with Mugabe's regime.

And it wasn't long before the regime made its move.

A month after Paradza ordered Mudzuri's release, police raided the judge's chambers, arrested him for allegedly obstructing the course of justice and for allegedly trying to influence three fellow judges to release the passport of a business partner awaiting trial on a murder charge.

Paradza became the first serving judge in Zimbabwe's history to be arrested for alleged misconduct.

Under Zimbabwean law, a sitting High Court judge cannot be arrested before an inquiry into the alleged criminal misconduct has been set up and has established the truthfulness of such allegations. In a subsequent application to the Supreme Court on his arrest, the Supreme Court ruled that the arrest had indeed been improper and that a commission of inquiry had to be established before any action could be taken by law enforcement agents.

Human rights organizations say Paradza's arrest was politically motivated and signals ongoing efforts on the part of the Mugabe regime to harass, intimidate and force out judges who have handed down judgments which are contrary to the regime's policies and who are perceived to be supporting the political opposition.

In 2000, the regime forced the resignation of Supreme Court Chief Justice Antony Gubbay following rulings that had gone against the government. A number of senior judges, like Judge Fergus Blackie, have also been forced to leave the bench following political pressure, physical and verbal attacks, arrests and other means of intimidation and harassment. Others have fled the country after receiving death threats for ruling against the interests of Mugabe's regime.

Paradza will remember his days in prison for a long time.

On his experiences in jail, he said: "There were lice and mosquitoes, and the communal toilet did not flush. The smell was unbearable. I felt humiliated and degraded."

Dato Param Cumaraswamy, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, expressed grave concern over the criminal charges and their implications on judicial independence and the rule of law in Zimbabwe.

"What is common and very conspicuous about the alleged charges against Justice Paradza and retired Judge Blackie is that the principle witnesses to prove the alleged charges are fellow judges. This is pitting judges against judges and setting the members of the judiciary on a collision course between what will be seen as the independents and the complaints," Cumaraswamy said.

When Paradza was released on bail, he fled the country, first to South Africa and then to Britain before being granted refuge in New Zealand. He could not settle in South Africa because South Africa refuses to acknowledge that Mugabe's regime is violating human rights laws. South Africa also has an extradition treaty with Zimbabwe and has been routinely sending Zimbabweans, including asylum seekers, back into the hands of Mugabe's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization.

Britain would not allow Paradza to submit an application for political asylum because asylum laws meant he had to seek refuge in South Africa. Nor would the country allow him to accept a 40,000 pound-a-year university fellowship in London.

Arnold Tsunga, director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said the Mugabe regime arrested and imprisoned Paradza to demonstrate to other members on the bench that if they did not comply with the political leadership, they would not receive protection from the state.

"To decide whether he received a fair trial, look at the way the case started. He was arrested in chambers by a constable in a manner that is highly irregular, and he was humiliated in the process of being arrested.

"By running away, I think he is saying he did not get a fair trial. He felt his colleagues won't have enough clout to withstand political pressure, and I guess it explains why he's on the run," Tsunga said.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

Sunday, 14 May 2006

Afghan Hijackers Aid Call for Asylum Work Rights

Nine Afghan men who fled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan six years ago by hijacking a plane and forcing it to fly to Britain have added their voices to calls on the government to allow asylum seekers to work.

In a statement, the asylum seekers said they had skills to offer and that they were not interested in "sponging" off the state. They called the fact that they have been kept idle for the past six years an affront to common sense. Instead of living on state benefits, they could have been working and contributing to society.

"We are desperate to work, as before we came to this country, all of us had worked to support ourselves and our families from a very young age," they said.


The men were jailed for the hijacking in 2001. In 2003, they won an appeal against their convictions. Last week, the High Court granted them permission to stay in Britain. The government said it would appeal that decision.

"We can't have a situation in which people who hijack a plane, we're not able to deport back to their country," Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work until their application has been approved. If refused asylum, they are also denied benefits.

Taxpayers have had to foot the bill to keep the nine men in Britain — an estimated £15 million ($28.4 million) — because they have been under strict immigration controls and unable to work.

According to a report by the Information Center about Asylum and Refugees (I.C.A.R.), not allowing asylum seekers to work "constitutes a significant barrier to any potential economic contribution they might make, both in terms of its immediate restriction on employment but also in terms of the long-term effects of periods of forced unemployment."

Citing a study published by the Home Office in 2002, the report says migrants -- a category that includes asylum seekers and refugees -- "contributed £2.5 billion [$4.7 billion] more in taxes than they consumed in benefits and services in 1999/2000."

Other studies "suggested that asylum seekers and refugees have higher than average educational, skills and qualification levels, high levels of motivation, and that the majority are young males of working age."

"Given these characteristics, it is likely that, along with other categories of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have a great deal to offer their host country if initial obstacles can be overcome," the report says.

In November 2005, Labor member of Parliament, Kate Hoey tabled an Early Day Motion (E.D.M.) to try to persuade the government to grant asylum seekers the right to work. Although the motion is specific to Zimbabweans, if the E.D.M. receives enough support, it will benefit all asylum seekers regardless of nationality.

"There are Zimbabweans I know personally who have been reduced to destitution within the past few weeks even though they have skills we really need in this country such as teaching and nursing," said Hoey. "We can't send them back to Mugabe's tyranny, so it is common sense they should be allowed to work for their living."

So far, 76 members of Parliament have signed the petition.

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, has also backed the call for the right to work:

"It is inexcusable that we are still forcing vulnerable people into destitution. It is even worse that many of these people have valuable skills and talents that could benefit both the U.K. economy and society. If people are unable to return home, they should be properly supported and offered the opportunity to work and contribute."

In an article in The Sunday Times (May 14), Alex Delmar-Morgan adds that an upcoming report by the Church of England reminds the British government that it has, in Delmar-Morgan's words, "an international, moral and legal responsibility to welcome those fleeing adversity from other parts of the world and to provide them with social security."

According to Delmar-Morgan, the report calls on Britain to "lead rather than follow public opinion on immigration, refugees and asylum policy."

The report, titled "Faithful Cities," is due out on May 22.

This article was first published on the World Press Review.

Sunday, 7 May 2006

Under Siege: Zimbabwe's Human Rights Defenders; Paul Themba Nyathi

In December 2005, Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi was returning from a two-day visit in South Africa when security agents seized his passport. They gave him no reason for the seizure. A day earlier they had confiscated the passport of Trevor Ncube who publishes South Africa's Mail & Guardian, Zimbabwe's Independent and the Zimbabwe Standard.

Nyathi — like Ncube, trade unionist Raymond Majongwe and 64 others — had been placed on a list of people who were to be barred from entering into or traveling out of Zimbabwe. In August, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government had used its parliamentary majority to push through a set of constitutional amendments, among them a provision allowing the government to impose travel bans on "traitors" and those deemed to be harming the national interest.

The new legislation, like many others after it and many more before it, is part of an ongoing effort to entrench President Robert G. Mugabe's hold on power.

Although Nyathi got his passport back, he is convinced the Mugabe regime is set in its ways and will use everything at its disposal to silence all forms of dissent and close down the democratic space in Zimbabwe.

"I am sure there was a legal loophole and that is why our passports were returned," he says. "But knowing this government as I do, I am sure they will find a way to close the loophole and take our passports away again."

Nyathi is a veteran in Zimbabwe's struggle for freedom.

Before the country's independence from Britain in 1980, he was a teacher. Disaffection with how the white minority Rhodesia Front government was ruling the country led him to join the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), which was led by Joshua Nkomo.

As a ZAPU provincial executive member, one of Nyathi's main duties was to recruit people to train as freedom fighters, an offence which, under Rhodesian law, was punishable with death by hanging.

When Rhodesian security agents got wind of his activities, he was arrested, interrogated and placed under indefinite detention at Wha Wha, a prison for political prisoners in Gweru. Nyathi was released in 1979 after it had become clear to the Rhodesian government that they had lost the struggle to keep Zimbabwe under white rule.

In "Three Years at Wha Wha," a personal narrative that appears in "Conscience Be My Guide: An Anthology of Prison Writing" published by Zed Books and Weaver Press (2005), Nyathi gives an account of his experiences as a detainee in Rhodesia and, later on, in Zimbabwe under Mugabe.

"On my first arrest, in 1974, I was interrogated in relation to recruitment of guerrillas for the ZAPU army, ZIPRA [the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army]. The white officer was well informed about our activities, but when he couldn't get anything from me, he handed me to two black officers who assaulted me … and eventually simply let me go," he says.

The prisoners he remembers received two meals a day, the cells were relatively clean and the toilets flushed every hour.

In 1976, Nyathi was arrested for the second time and interrogated for two weeks before being transferred to Wha Wha.

When he came out of prison in 1979, Nyathi was appointed to ZAPU's central committee, a position that he held until 1987 when ZAPU merged with ZANU to form ZANU-PF. The merger was part of an effort to stop the mass killings of civilians by Mugabe's Fifth Brigade in the Ndebele provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands during the early to late 80's. As a result of the actions of the Fifth Brigade, an estimated 20,000 civilians, mostly Ndebele were killed or disappeared and are still unaccounted for to this date.

In 1999, Nyathi became one of the founding members of the national executive of the M.D.C., the main opposition party to the Mugabe-led ZANU-PF party.

On his experiences as a prisoner in Rhodesia, Nyathi says, "One thing that was noteworthy was that the state recognized that we were political opponents. There was no attempt to criminalize us. Furthermore, they conceded that detainees were entitled to certain basic rights and were respected as human beings."

He contrasts this with what he found when he was arrested in 2003 under the draconian provisions of Zimbabwe's Public Order and Security Act and charged with trying to overthrow a constitutionally elected government.

"I was arrested and detained for four days at Bulawayo Central Police Station, where I had been in 1974. I saw an amazing disregard for basic human dignity. The cells were unbelievably filthy, a rag which was once a blanket was caked with human vomit and excrement, the stench from the overflowing toilet was overwhelming, and there seemed to be a sadistic appreciation of the role played by hoards of mosquitoes … In four days I was never given food by the police — I had to be fed by colleagues from outside," he says.

He finds it disturbing that under an independent African government there should be brutality, callousness and deliberate degradation of other human beings.

"There is no acceptance of legitimate political opposition," he says, "but rather a determination to criminalize it. Beyond this, there is a total indifference to a malfunctioning system. No one bothers to repair what does not work, or correct any wrongs. There has developed a culture of neglect."

This article was first published in the World Press Review.

Tuesday, 2 May 2006

Britain Undermining Rights of Foreign Prisoners

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, says foreign prisoners in the United Kingdom are being unjustly exposed to racism and isolation and are not being adequately prepared to resume their lives on release.

She attributes these failings to the absence of a strategy for managing the huge rise in the number of foreign nationals who are serving prisoner sentences in the U.K.

In the nine years that Tony Blair has been prime minister, the number of foreign prisoners has increased by about 150 percent. Latest figures from the Home Office show that by the end of February, there were 76,670 prisoners in England and Wales. Of these, 10,265 were foreign nationals coming from 168 countries. Over half were from just six countries: Ireland, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey.

Twenty-five percent of the foreign national men and 80 percent of the women are being held on drug charges.

"Despite being held in record numbers, foreign prisoners often lack basic information about prison rules and the legal system, struggle to gain accurate legal and immigration advice and in the general confusion, many are held beyond their prison discharge date," Juliet Lyon says.

She says the Prison Reform Trust has strong welfare concerns for foreign nationals who are being held in prisons in the U.K., particularly isolation and racism.

Lyon gives foreign national women as an example and says, "It is thought around three-quarters of foreign national women in prison are young mothers separated from their children. Separation from family and isolation can damage mental health, and make an already long sentence feel yet longer. Racist treatment was also a recurrent concern of prisoners."

She tells of a prisoner who contacted the Prison Reform Trust recently because he has been held in prison for 10 months after his sentence, waiting to be deported.

Another prisoner who is also being held beyond his release date says he has not received written notification from immigration officials as to the length of his continued imprisonment.

"We respond to many cases of this kind, and yet the Home Office is still not able to tell Parliament exactly how many foreign nationals are detained in prison beyond their sentence," Lyon says.

She accuses the Home Office and the prison system of failing to prepare foreign prisoners for life after prison.

"Language problems prevented them taking part in courses to prevent their offending behavior and because of uncertainty over whether they would be deported or not, they were not considered for pre-release classes," she says.

Enver Solomon of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, London, writes that there is a whiff of xenophobia about how the media is discussing and reporting the story of foreign national prisoners.

In a letter in The Guardian (April 27), he says the real story at the heart of the matter is the way the prison and immigration authorities have, for many years, regarded foreign prisoners as undeserving second-class inmates and disregarded their rights.

"If there was adequate immigration and legal advice available in prison, the current systemic failing could have been avoided," Solomon says.

John O., a campaigner for the rights of refugees and immigrants with the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (N.C.A.D.C.) adds that the way the Home Office is dealing with foreign prisoners is unfair, unjust and discriminatory:

"Breaking the law is not acceptable but the law must be fair in how it punishes someone who breaks the law. Sentencing must be consistent and not discriminatory.

"Sentencing a U.K. citizen to 10 years for a crime, and when the person has served the sentence, … [releasing the person] back into the community with appropriate safeguards, is correct. However, to sentence a foreign national to 10 years for the same crime, and when the person has served the sentence, deport them from the U.K., is discriminatory and unjust," he says.

It is a fundamental principle of U.K. law that a person cannot be punished twice for the same offence — this, however, does not apply to foreign nationals living in the U.K.

"If they commit a crime and are sentenced to imprisonment, they can also face a secondary punishment of deportation," John O. says.

Deportation can take place in two ways. It can be recommended by a court following conviction for an offence punishable with imprisonment or, where the court makes no recommendation, the Home Office can serve a deportation notice on the grounds that the prisoner's presence in the U.K. is not "conducive to the public good."

Deportation following conviction can be irrespective of how long a person has lived in the U.K. and irrespective of their family ties in the country.

In many cases the Home Office will argue that to keep families together, partners and children of convicted criminals can uproot themselves and go and live abroad often in countries they have never been to.

The courts in these cases can often disagree with the Home Secretary when he tries to deport someone with family ties in the U.K.

"Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life. At times it is not feasible, realistic, practicable, reasonable or sensible for the whole family to uproot and leave the U.K. because of the conviction of the head of the family," John O says.

In one case where the Home Secretary's intention to deport was rejected, the adjudicator said: "… deportation at the end of a 10 year sentence may indeed come close to a double punishment — and one that would appear to be, largely, reserved for persons from ethnic minorities."

This article was first published in the World Press Review.