Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe brought his despotism to a new level of sophistication last week. By allowing the nation’s highest court, which he effectively controls, to acquit opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of a treason charge that could carry the death penalty, Mr. Mugabe effectively gave his thugocracy the false semblance of legitimacy and prevented a potential rebuke from South Africa. In reality, Mr. Mugabe maintains his dictatorial control of Zimbabwe, and has stepped up his repression.
The state-controlled media in Zimbabwe is predictably in concert with the Mugabe regime: “The judgment …will go a long way in remoulding the way in which both the local and international communities regard matters of governance in Zimbabwe,” Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mirror commented. “How the case was handled symbolises that there are checks and balances and therefore there was no need for fear that the executive…would interfere with the justice delivery system.” Clearly, this is the message Mr. Mugabe is trying to send.
Mr. Mugabe remains a brutal dictator. Amnesty International said Monday that while it welcomes Mr. Tsvangirai’s acquittal, “the trial…was a politically motivated prosecution in keeping with a wider pattern of arrest and trial on spurious charges as a form of harassment of the political opposition in Zimbabwe.” Amnesty International’s 2004 report on Zimbabwe found that in 2003, “There was an escalation in state-sponsored attacks on critics of the government.” The report said that incidents of torture were reported, hundreds of people were detained for holding political meetings or peaceful protests, journalists were harassed and detained and government officials politically manipulated food aid.
Mr. Mugabe has long stacked the court in his favor, which is why Mr. Tsvangirai’s acquittal should be seen as the leader’s attempt to sway international public opinion, not an indication that judicial freedom is emerging. Amnesty said in its reports that “authorities continued to harass, intimidate and force out of office magistrates and judges who handed down judgments perceived to be in support of the political opposition.”
The charges leveled against Mr. Mugabe were, by all serious accounts, laughably unsubstantiated and the fact that the trial dragged on for close to two years is testament to the court’s lack of independence. The government’s star witness, Israeli businessman Ari Ben-Menashe, admitted in court he had received $615,000 from the Zimbabwean government for a public-relations contract. A tape in which the government said Mr. Tsvangirai called for the “elimination” of Mr. Mugabe was grainy and virtually inaudible.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration hopes the acquittal “signals an end of the politically motivated prosecutions.” That remains wholly unlikely. Mr. Tsvangirai still faces another treason charge for his role in calling for street protests against Mr. Mugabe. That charge will likely continue to handicap Mr. Tsvangirai until April’s parliamentary elections.
Mr. Mugabe’s fear of criticism from the South African government may have prevented the High Court from finding Mr. Tsvangirai guilty. The case strongly suggests that if South African President Thabo Mbeki were to otherwise strengthen his ineffective “quiet diplomacy” towards Zimbabwe, Mr. Mugabe could feel compelled to change.