- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A senior Zimbabwean government official targeted for sanctions by the U.S. government was the guest of honor at a March 7 reception in the U.S. Capitol attended by at least one House Democratic lawmaker.

The gathering, sponsored in part by the National Black Leadership Roundtable and the District-based Independence Federal Savings Bank, was held in honor of Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s central bank and a key financial official in the government of authoritarian President Robert Mugabe.

Mr. Mugabe’s policies of state control and farm seizures are widely blamed for transforming what was once one of Africa’s most productive economies into a poverty- and debt-stricken land dependent on international aid.

Rep. Diane Watson, California Democrat and member of the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa, was listed as the event’s “special guest.”

According to the invitation, the reception was held in part to “hear new opportunities for African-American investors” in Zimbabwe’s mining, tourism and agricultural-processing sectors.

Mr. Gono is on a list of 128 Zimbabwe officials and 33 organizations named in a November 2005 sanctions order by President Bush that was designed to express disapproval of Mr. Mugabe’s record on human rights, democracy and development.

Zimbabwean human rights activists were sharply critical of the event, calling Mr. Gono a “linchpin” of the Mugabe regime.

“We were disgusted that a key component of this government should be honored in the very shadow of the Capitol dome,” said one regime critic, who declined to be named because of the critic’s ongoing work with Congress.

U.S. policy has long been to isolate the Mugabe government. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named Zimbabwe as one of six “outposts of tyranny” in her January 2005 Senate confirmation hearing, along with such regimes as North Korea and Iran.

According to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Zimbabwe sanctions include a ban on any business transaction with the named officials and a freeze on assets they have in the United States. Mr. Gono, as a “specially designated national,” is prohibited from travel to the United States outside of strictly defined official business.

The penalties for violating the order include fines of up to $250,000 for deals with people and up to ten years in prison.

Bert Hammond, a spokesman for Miss Watson, said she attended the March 7 evening event in a Senate conference room because of a “long-standing relationship” with the U.S. organizers.

“She was asked to stop by, and that’s about the extent of it,” Mr. Hammond said. “There was no other motive than to stop by and say hello.”

Another aide said on background that Miss Watson supports the sanctions on Zimbabwe and did not discuss substantive issues or business dealings at the Gono event.

According to the State Department, Mr. Gono and Zimbabwe Finance Minister Herbert Murerwa were in Washington to attend an executive board meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“As the host country to the IMF, the United States issues visas to officials of member states when they visit for IMF business,” a State Department official told The Washington Times.

Similar exemptions have been granted for other officials otherwise banned from the United States. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example, have obtained similar visas to attend United Nations’ functions in New York.

The official said Mr. Gono’s visa restricted his travel to a 25-mile radius from the Washington Monument.

The Capitol reception does not appear to violate U.S. sanctions, as long as Mr. Gono did not discuss personal business deals. Unlike in Cuba and Iran, U.S. firms are permitted to invest in and trade with Zimbabwean partners.

Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said the Zimbabwe sanctions contain an exemption for travel-related expenses on approved trips.

“For all intents and purposes, attendance at a dinner party during travel that doesn’t otherwise involve financial transactions most likely would not fall within the Zimbabwe programs prohibitions,” she said.

Although the gathering did not violate U.S. law, the State Department tried to discourage organizers, according to the private Zimbabwe critics.

U.S. officials say they were more successful in frustrating the main purpose of Mr. Gono’s Washington visit last week.

Despite the urgings of Mr. Gono and Mr. Murerwa, the IMF executive board voted last Thursday not to restore Zimbabwe’s voting rights or to allow it to obtain new loans until Zimbabwe pays back money owed on other past-due IMF programs.

• Brian DeBose contributed to this article.

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