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Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Under Siege: Zimbabwe's Human Rights Defenders; Trevor Ncube

In December 2005, Trevor Ncube, who publishes South Africa's Mail & Guardian, Zimbabwe's Independent and the Zimbabwe Standard, spent a week virtually under country arrest when security agents in Zimbabwe seized his passport. He couldn't leave Zimbabwe legally because he had no passport

Ncube believes the security agents, who he says now rule the country, wanted him to do just that: Leave Zimbabwe illegally so that they could level criminal charges against him and take over his newspapers.

"They want my newspapers. They want the Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard," he says. "They have been unable to do with us what they have done with Ibbo Mandaza's newspapers and what they have done with the Financial Gazette, namely to control them through the C.I.O. buying into them through the backdoor.

"They know I stand to lose a lot if I am unable to return to South Africa. They think I will leave the country illegally so they can have something to pin on me. Then they can specify me and my newspapers and that way take over my business."

Trevor Ncube travels regularly between South Africa and Zimbabwe to run his newspapers. He publishes the only independent newspapers in Zimbabwe as well as South Africa's Mail & Guardian. He now has the uneasy distinction of being the first target of an escalating crackdown by the government against civic groups, nongovernmental organizations and other critics.

"If they think they can stop me from speaking against injustice, corruption and misgovernment by taking away my passport, then they are mistaken. It will not stop me," Ncube says.

But in a country with some of the most repressive media laws in the world and where journalists are under the constant scrutiny of security agents, it is really only a matter of time before his newspapers, too, are either banned outright or taken over by the country's dreaded secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization (C.I.O.).

Over the past five years, the Zimbabwean government has routinely persecuted, detained and harassed journalists in an attempt to deter them from reporting on violations of human rights, economic woes and political opposition to the regime.

Repressive legislation such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (2002) which make it a crime to practice journalism without a government license, have been written into the statute books.

Many of the nation's most prominent reporters have been forced into exile and are now living in South Africa, other African nations, the United Kingdom and the United States. At least 90 such journalists are known to be in exile, making them one of the largest groups of exiled journalists in the world. Some of the exiled journalists left as a direct result of political persecution, others because the government's crackdown virtually erased opportunities in the independent press.

Speaking at a conference of his Zanu-PF party on Dec. 10, President Robert G. Mugabe vowed to take "stern action" against civic groups, nongovernmental organizations and other critics of his government. A resolution was later adopted at the conference welcoming moves to seize the passports of people "who go around demonizing the country."

"We want the security people to draw up a list of people like that and withdraw their passports," it said.

A list of people Zanu-PF sees as traitors has been around since Zanu-PF came into power in 1980. It has constantly been revised and the punishment the party meted out to its enemies has been changing with the changing times.

Journalists Geoff Nyarota, Nqobile Nyathi, Lloyd Mudiwa, Basildon Peta, Caroline Gombakomba and others are on the current list of people whose passports are to be seized if they try to enter or leave the country.

The travel ban follows an amendment to the constitution, ratified in September, that allows the government to restrict the right to freedom of movement by denying a passport to anyone wishing to travel outside the country "where it is feared or believed or known that the Zimbabwean in question will, during his or her travel, harm the national interest or defense interest or economic interest of the state."

Minister of Justice Patrick Chinamasa justifies withdrawing passports from critics of the government.

"There are people who gallivant across the globe calling for sanctions against the country. Those are the ones we are targeting. I don't want to mention names because they know themselves. If you are one of them, you are in for it," he says.

The ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs are also deliberating on additional regulations that will make it mandatory for Zimbabweans to apply for exit visas if they are to travel outside the country.

Chinamasa does not deny or confirm that the government is considering imposing exit visas.

"Are you afraid?" he asks, instead. "Whether we introduce the visas you are talking about is not the issue. The issue is that we should not allow saboteurs to go round the world badmouthing the country."

Trevor Ncube says there is nothing new about what the Mugabe regime is doing.

"This is about a regime that wants to control the minds of people," he says. "They are basically saying that you can't speak out, because if you do, you lose your passport."

Trevor Ncube is lucky.

He got his passport back after a week because although the amended constitution now allows the Mugabe government to seize passports of those it perceives to be acting against national interest, there is no corresponding piece of legislation which sets specific guidelines as to which offences warrant the withdrawal of passports.

That Ncube got his passport back does not mean the Mugabe regime will stop confiscating its critics' passports. It means the regime will close the legal loophole that allowed Ncube to reclaim his passport and retain control of his newspapers.

Having lost this round, the regime will be all the more determined to make sure that the other 64 critics on the travel ban list do not slip out of its grip. The regime will close the loophole that forced it to return Trevor Ncube's passport and the next time he returns to Zimbabwe, he will most likely not be able to leave the country legally.

This can be seen by the fact that as Ncube was getting his passport back, another outspoken critic of the Zimbabwe government, Raymond Majongwe, who is the secretary general of a national teachers union, had his withdrawn. It was seized at Harare International Airport on Majongwe's return from a trip abroad.

This article was first published on the World Press Review.

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Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Zimbabwe Curtails Travel Rights of Critics

According to reports in Zimbabwean newspapers, President Robert G. Mugabe has placed between 15 and 64 human rights activists and critics on a list of people who are banned from traveling outside the country because they allegedly threaten the country’s national interests.

The ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs are deliberating draft regulations that will require Zimbabweans to obtain exit visas to travel outside the country.

Critics say the new passport laws are aimed at immobilizing human rights activists and opposition leaders in order to prevent them from highlighting the government’s repressiveness to the world. The laws have been described as a serious and unacceptable assault on people’s freedom of movement.

NewZimbabwe.com (Dec. 6, 2005) says a memo has been sent to all exit points and border posts instructing immigration officials to seize the passports of people on the travel ban list.

According to the paper, immigration officials at some of the country’s border posts, including the Harare International Airport, confirmed the names of the people on the list. The sources also revealed that they are under orders to seize the passports of anyone on the list “with immediate effect” if they try to either leave or enter the country.

Paul Themba Nyathi, national spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.), the main opposition party, and Grace Kwinjeh, M.D.C’s European Union representative, are on the list as are human rights lawyers, Beatrice Mtetwa and Gabriel Shumba. Shumba is currently living in exile in South Africa and is suing the government of Zimbabwe for torture before an African Human Rights tribunal in the Gambia.

Other people whose passports immigration officers have been instructed include poet, trade unionist and teacher, Raymond Majongwe; businessman, Strive Masiyiwa; chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, Lovemore Madhuku; chairman of the Crisis Coalition, Brian Kagoro; Noble Sibanda, a relentless campaigner for asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.

NewZimbabwe.com’s sources say the list is likely to expand and that those on the current list include journalists Geoff Nyarota, Nqobile Nyathi, Lloyd Mudiwa, Basildon Peta and Caroline Gombakomba.

At least 90 Zimbabwean journalists, including many of the nation’s most prominent reporters, now live in exile in South Africa, other African nations, the United Kingdom, and the United States, making them one of the largest groups of exiled journalists in the world. Some of these exiled journalists left as a direct result of political persecution, others because the government’s crackdown virtually erased opportunities in the independent press.

The Zimbabwean government has routinely detained and harassed journalists over the past five years to quash reporting on human rights, economic woes and political opposition to the regime. 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.

The travel ban follows an amendment to the constitution, ratified in September, that allows the government to restrict the right to freedom of movement by denying a passport to anyone wishing to travel outside the country “where it is feared or believed or known that the Zimbabwean in question will, during his or her travel, harm the national interest or defense interest or economic interest of the State.”

Zimbabwe’s constitution has been amended 17 times in the past 25 years by the ruling Zanu-PF government, the most notable amendment being the abolition of the prime minister’s position, which led to the creation of an executive presidency in 1987.

Following the latest constitutional amendment, Minister of Justice Patrick Chinamasa told journalists:

“There are people who gallivant across the globe calling for sanctions against the country. Those are the ones we are targeting. I don’t want to mention names because they know themselves. If you are one of them, you are in for it.”

Zwnews.com (Dec. 3, 2005) says the list of people targeted for a travel ban has been around for a long time. It points to a booklet produced by Zanu-PF’s department of information and publicity before parliamentary elections earlier this year, titled “Traitors Do Much Damage to National Goals,” which lists perceived enemies of the state.

“The list comprises politicians, human rights activists, journalists and clergyman viewed as ’traitors,’ dating back to the first Chimurenga,” the paper says. [Chimurenga: liberation war.]

Zimobserver.com (Dec. 6, 2005) says the requirement on Zimbabweans to obtain exit visas could result in opposition leaders and critics of the government being banned from leaving the country.

According to the paper’s sources, the ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs are deliberating the regulations before submitting them to Mugabe’s cabinet for approval and later to Parliament for enactment. It quotes a senior government official:

“If the plans go ahead, then the exit visas would come into effect at the beginning of next year. Officials from the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice are deliberating on the modalities which will be sent to the cabinet for approval.”

Minister of Justice Chinamasa would neither deny nor confirm whether the government was considering imposing exit visas when contacted by reporters for comments.

Chinamasa would only say:

"Are you afraid? Whether we introduce the visas you are talking about is not the issue. The issue is that we should not allow saboteurs to go round the world badmouthing the country.”

Newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube became the first high profile critic of the government affected by the amendment.

Ncube, who publishes South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, Zimbabwe’s Independent and the Zimbabwe Standard, told South Africa’s Business Day (Dec. 9, 2005) that his passport was taken soon after he landed at the Harare International Airport on a South African Airways flight on Thursday.

He said he was about to leave the airport after having his passport stamped when an official stopped him:

“I asked who he was and he told me he was from the president’s office. He showed me an (identity card) which said that he was from the Central Intelligence Organization.

“After that (we went) back to immigration where my passport was confiscated.”

The South African National Editors Forum criticized authorities for punishing Ncube for his involvement in newspaper publishing and expressed concern that the government was using the amendment “to suppress critical voices within and outside of Zimbabwe.”

This article was first published in the World Press Review.

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Monday, 5 March 2007

Government’s Policy Leaves Refugee Children Destitute

An investigation by the leading children’s charity, Barnardo’s and the Refugee Children’s Consortium has revealed the serious damage being done to vulnerable children by the British government’s new asylum and immigration policy.

Barnardo’s and the Refugee Children’s Consortium investigated 33 local authorities, including 18 that have been taking part in the government’s pilot implementation of section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004 and found that the removal of basic support is leaving families destitute.

Section 9 of the Act removes or significantly restricts the welfare entitlement of families who have reached the end of the asylum process and who have “failed to take reasonable steps” to leave the United Kingdom.

In a statement issued after the investigation, Barnardo’s and the Refugee Children’s Consortium said: “The removal of basic support by local authorities under the 1989 Children Act is leaving families destitute. The government’s belief is that this will encourage families with children to leave the U.K. once their asylum claim has been decided. Whilst section 9 is not unique in its use of welfare restrictions to ‘encourage’ return, it is unique in the way it deliberately impacts negatively on refugee children.”

Key findings from the investigation were that all local authorities interviewed believe section 9 is wholly incompatible with existing child welfare legislation, and some fear section 9 will undermine the well-established principle that the child’s welfare should be paramount.

“There is evidence that the different approaches taken by authorities are likely to lead to a ‘postcode lottery’ in support.

“Many local authorities are fearful that in working with these families they are leaving themselves open to legal challenge,” said the statement from Barnardo’s and the Refugee Children’s Consortium.

In addition to these failings, the investigation revealed there is little evidence that this policy is effective in achieving the government’s objective of speeding up returns.

Many families do not understand their position, and of the 116 families involved in the pilot, not one has returned to their country of origin. At least 35 have disappeared, and are now living on the margins of society, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Nancy Kelley, who authored the report on the investigation titled “The End of the Road: Families and Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004,” which was published on Nov. 1 2005, says, “Refugee children often come to this country traumatized by what they have seen. Unfortunately, arrival in the U.K. rarely marks the beginning of a safe and comfortable life; indeed, they are likely to experience continued stress, hunger, poor health and extreme poverty. Whatever the intention of Section 9, it is being implemented in a way that runs the risk of causing life long damage to children and families who are already among the most vulnerable people in society.”

Alison Webster, Barnardo’s principal policy officer says: “Children should not be being used as tools for enforcing immigration decisions. For them their parents are often the only stable part of their lives.”

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.

“The government should take the opportunity to repeal section 9 before its implementation does further damage to the lives of children and families.

“The government should review its asylum policy as a whole, specifically considering the extent to which it is compatible with existing child welfare and human rights legislation including the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

One hundred and sixteen families, with 36 adult dependants and 216 children have been affected by the government’s pilot implementation of section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004. The affected families include 25 families from Pakistan, 16 families from Somalia, 8 families from the Democratic Republic of Congo and 10 families from Zimbabwe.

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 of this year, 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 Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act of 2004 is the third piece of asylum and immigration legislation introduced by the British government over the last five years. Each of these acts has included provisions that have had a very negative impact on the quality of protection available to asylum seekers in Britain.

“Over time, it has become increasingly difficult for refugees to reach Britain and claim asylum, access essential legal services, or simply survive day to day life as a result of poverty,” Nancy Kelley says.

The Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act of 2004 had its first reading in the House of Commons on the Nov. 27, 2003, and received Royal Assent on July 22, 2004, after extensive debate, much of which focused on the potential impact of section 9.

Section 9 of the Act amended schedule 3 of the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002 by inserting paragraph 7A. It created a new category of people described as “failed asylum seeker with family” and set out the circumstances in which these people may lose their entitlement to financial or material support under domestic welfare provisions including the Children Act of 1989, the Children (Scotland) Act of 1995 and the Children (Northern Ireland) Order of 1995.

Specifically, it provided that where a failed asylum seeker with child dependent(s) failed to take “reasonable steps” to leave Britain or place themselves in a position to leave and the secretary of state issues a certificate to the effect that they have failed to do so without reasonable excuse, then the adult family member’s entitlement to support from the state may end, unless withdrawal of support would lead to a breach of the Human Rights Act of 1999.

The government’s stated belief is that this will encourage families with children to leave Britain once their asylum claim has been decided.

Whilst not unique in its use of welfare restrictions to “encourage” returns, section 9 is unique in its deliberate impact on refugee children, already amongst the most vulnerable groups in the United Kingdom.

Throughout the passage of the Act, the Refugee Children’s Consortium, alongside other voluntary agencies, lobbied for section 9 to be deleted from the bill on the grounds that refugee children should be viewed as children first and foremost, and that to use children as a tool by which to coerce families into cooperating with return is unethical and potentially in breach of the Children’s Act of 1989, the Human Rights Act of 1998 and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Concerns that section 9 might lead to negative impacts on children’s safety and well being were expressed in both Houses of Parliament and by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. At the heart of these concerns was the fear that children would be left destitute, or be taken away from loving families as a result of this new policy.

“Despite this widespread disquiet, section 9 passed on the statute books unchanged,” Nancy Kelley says.

The Refugee Children’s Consortium, founded in 1998, brings together 25 organizations committed to the needs and rights of children and young people seeking asylum.

This article was first published in the World Press Review.

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