- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

On March 11, 2007, I was arrested while attempting to attend a prayer vigil in Harare and taken to a police station where officers, whose job it is to protect the public, beat me so badly I suffered injuries to my skull and had to be hospitalized foralmost a week. My crime: trying to pray for change in Zimbabwe.

The world’s outcry over the past two months at the brutality exhibited by the regime of President Robert Mugabe has been heartening to the Zimbabwe people.Make no mistake, this condemnation, both in Africa and abroad, has had a hugeand positive effect on the morale of those fighting for freedom.

Mr. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 and since that time, we haveseen inflation spiral from virtually zero to 2,300 percent, a collapse ofthe currency and the flight into economic exile of almost a third of our population. True, there have been worse leaders in the world. According to the GuinnessBook of Records, Joseph Stalin killed more than 30 million people. Idi Amin murdered around 300,000 Ugandans while one in 10 Cambodians perished under the rule of Pol Pot. The other dictators lived out their lives in relative comfort and died of natural causes.

Nevertheless the world has changed. Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile, propped up so shamelessly by Washington and Europe during the Cold War, ended up on trial, stripped of the immunity he had forced the Argentine government to give him in exchange for a transfer to democracy. On my own continent, the former leadership of Rwanda and Sierra Leone are in the dock, while one-time president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, is under arrest at The Hague for crimes against humanity.

These are dangerous times for dictators. I have little doubt that one reason Mr. Mugabe is so determined to stay in office until he dies (he’s already 83 years old) is a fear of prosecution. In the early ‘80s, he sent his army into our southern province of Matabeleland, where they slaughtered thousands of people loyal to his rival, the late Dr. Joshua Nkomo. That one act would be enough to see him tried for war crimes, let alone the wide-scale murder and torture committed by his government since our party, the Movement for Democratic Change or MDC, first challenged his authority in 1999.

Mr. Mugabe was not alone. Air Marshall Perence Shiri, among others, led the Matabele genocide; speaker of parliament Emmerson Mnangagwa oversaw it as minister; various heads of the feared Central Intelligence Organization or CIO, including the incumbent Didymus Mutasa must be held to account. These individuals could be held responsible for permitting acts of torture and abuse, not to mention the wholesale displacement of an estimated 1.5 million people when their homes were bulldozed in 2005 during operation Murambatsvina(clear the trash).

And that’s the Catch-22. If we say we’ll bring these people to justice, they will cling ever more firmly to power. Yet, if we offer them unconditional pardon, we sell out the hopes of their victims: millions of people who have a right to justice. With my body still in pain from the recent beating, I am reminded of the words of Henry Kissinger when he was secretary of state in the 1970s: “If you want to make peace, it’s no good talking to your friends; you need to speak with your enemies.”

To this end we are willing at any time to sit down with Mr. Mugabe and his ministers and discuss a transfer to democracy, free and fair elections, an end to their rigid control of the media and a new era of freedom for Zimbabwe. After all, we have nothing to lose and polling suggests our party would win a landslide if people had the chance to vote without the rigging and intimidation that have marred recent efforts. If it took immunity from prosecution to secure change, we could talk about that.

Our side comes to the table with no preconditions except that discussion must be aimed at bringing true freedom to the country. I will never be bought off by offers to join Mr. Mugabe’s side, or any plan that would see a continuation of the current tyranny. The change I talk about will come, regardless of whether Mr. Mugabe agrees to it or not. As surely as dictatorship fell in Chile, Cambodia, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the former Soviet Union, it will collapse in Zimbabwe. But the longer Mr. Mugabe and his allies stall that change, the greater will be the wrath of our people.

There is still time for Mr. Mugabe to make a dignified exit, but not much. Beatings, torture, killings, rigged elections and control of the media may secure his position in the short term, but nothing will change the outcome. Let’s pray that Africa and the world can persuade him of that before it is too late.

Morgan Tsvangirai is president of the Zimbabwe opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.

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