- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

MUTARE, Zimbabwe When six men one wearing fake Ray-Ban sunglasses walked up to my table in the Msasa Cafe among the Chimanimani Mountains, I knew that this was it.

Since returning to Zimbabwe in August to replace David Blair, who had been refused a renewal of his work permit to report for the Daily Telegraph, the small corps of foreign correspondents believed that one or more of us would be nabbed at some time. Six of us already had been called terrorists by the state's press.

But with the presidential elections over, and surrounded by the extraordinary beauty of the Chimanimani Mountains, it was the last thing on my mind. I was enjoying a cup of tea in the cafe, waiting to meet a contact.

The men surrounded my table and insisted that I go with them. I asked for their identification. Two of them showed me cards from the Zimbabwe Republic Police. I paid my bill and, accompanied by two of the group, got into my car and drove to the police station.

Then the questions began. I told them that I was a journalist working for a British newspaper. But, given that the Zimbabwean government hates both the independent press and all things British, it was a dangerous acknowledgement. The police said they had to check my bona fides.

I produced my metal identification card, which all Zimbabweans are obliged to carry since the Public Order and Security Act was rammed through Parliament in February.

Under this law, journalists can be jailed for a year for criticizing the president, his Cabinet or the security forces, or writing anything deemed false or economically harmful.

I was led up the hill behind the police station. I saw that the night sky was clearer than any other I had seen in years. The Southern Cross was bright and reassuring, and the distant mountains were just visible so beautiful.

The cell was not. It was bare, with three smelly blankets and a hole in the ground in the corner for a lavatory: the inevitable smell of urine, the slam of the door, and there I was: barefoot, braless and cold.

As dawn broke, I could see the distant mountains through an 8-inch square of mesh in the rusty old door. The day staff arrived. I was taken to sit in the office of two duty officers.

A Sgt. Marimuse with the ubiquitous mock Ray-Bans asked a series of fatuous questions as he went through my notebook and list of contacts. The morning stretched into the afternoon. Eventually, I was handed over to four police officers from provincial headquarters, who drove me to Mutare, the regional capital.

There, the police allowed me to see my cousins and eat some fruit, then took me to another cell, one with fewer blankets, no view and an even stronger smell of urine.

The days turned into nights, and along the way a detective managed to write out a charge sheet accusing me of working without accreditation under a new media law that was promulgated a week after the presidential elections held last month.

Late Sunday, at an urgent hearing in the high court in Harare, an interim order was handed down that said the section under which I was charged was unconstitutional, and the police were ordered to release me.

They were in no hurry. The provincial commander refused to sign my release papers. But my attorney finally found an officer who would, and I was freed into a balmy night in the shabby town close to where I had grown up.

Piecing it together, I realized that my arrest was not connected to my being a journalist. The paranoid intelligence community in Chimanimani saw an unknown white woman driving with a black passenger in a South African-registered car, so some part-time "revolutionary" believed that I was a security risk. For them, it was a bonus that I was working for a British newspaper.

After four days in custody, Miss Thornycroft was released Sunday. All charges were dropped yesterday.


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