Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Halfway through a 25-month sentence for theft, Brian Gumbo is literally rotting away - his skin peels because of malnutrition and the muscles in his legs have withered to the point where he can barely walk.

Mr. Gumbo, thought to be in his late 20s or early 30s, is one of several inmates videotaped through hidden cameras inside Zimbabwe’s prisons.

The images, shared with The Washington Times, are of gaunt prisoners with protruding ribs reminiscent of just-freed Holocaust survivors or Muslim prisoners held by Serbian troops during the Bosnian war.

“As an investigative journalist, I’ve seen a lot of human misery,” said Johann Abrahams, executive producer of “Hell Hole,” a documentary scheduled for broadcast Tuesday on the South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC).

“But when I first viewed the Zimbabwe prison tapes, it shocked me. I was reminded of the German death camps at Dachau and Auschwitz,” he said.

Mr. Abrahams said several inmates featured in the documentary have since died.

He said his crew was able to obtain the images by working secretly with prison officers who wanted to expose the abuse.

The images compound reports ofcontinuedhuman rights atrocities in Zimbabwe, despite a recent power-sharing deal between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition, and are likely to increase pressure for tougher measures against the southern African nation.

The United States already has personal sanctions in place against Mr. Mugabe and more than 200 of his closest advisers, including Prison Services Chief Paradzai Zimondi.

In one scene, the camera follows Mr. Gumbo as he shuffles from his cell to a hall, where he is given his daily meal: one bowl of corn porridge.

Like many prisoners, he suffers from pellagra caused by a lack of protein and niacin, one of the B vitamins. Left untreated, the deficiency leads to a loss of teeth, skin lesions, blindness and, ultimately, death.

Joseph Musonza, who now lives as a refugee in South Africa, was released from prison shortly before Christmas. He said that while it was rare for prisoners to be beaten or physically abused by guards, many died of neglect.

“It is hard to tell people my story because they accuse me of lying or exaggerating,” he told The Times. “In remand, before I was sentenced, I lived with 19 people in a cell built for maybe six. Nearly every night, someone died and it can be days before the bodies are [taken] away. In summer, there would be maggots in the man’s flesh and he is still lying next to you.”

Mr. Musonza served one year for assault, but he said the charge was political. He said people often were convicted because they belonged to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which is now in a coalition government with Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

“When MDC was the opposition, if you were too active in the party, police would say you tried to assault them and they would lock you up and bring in ZANU-PF supporters to witness against you,” he said. “They use the fear of jail to silence those who speak out. People know that once you are inside, no one in the system cares if you live or die.”

U.N. agencies estimate that up to three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s 12 million people are malnourished and dependent on food aid.

Critics blame bad governance and a land-redistribution program that began in 1999 and has left a majority of farms idle. Until 2001, Zimbabwe was a net exporter of food.

Mr. Musonza said food was delivered to the prison, only to be sold by guards. “There is not much to eat, but any meat or vegetables will be grabbed by the [guards] and taken for their families, or sold outside the jail. Inside, you get one cup of sadza [corn porridge] or sometimes a thick slice of bread.”

Cells, he said, were plagued with fleas and there were frequent outbreaks of dysentery. “Older prisoners used to speak of the days when there were rats, but they have all been eaten.”

Efforts to obtain comment from either Mr. Zimondi or Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa for this report were unsuccessful.

In Johannesburg on Sunday, the lobby group Zimbabwe Democracy Now (ZDN) called for the resignation of the prison chief and suggested that he could be tried for crimes against humanity.

ZDN acting spokeswoman Ethel Moyo said the images from the documentary showed that “a crime is taking place inside the jails.”

“These people are days away from death, having been starved and abused. It is cases like these for which the International Criminal Court was set up at The Hague,” she said.

On Thursday, the State Department called for the release of all political prisoners in Zimbabwe and said the United States would not engage the government until there was “respect for human rights and personal security, and full access to humanitarian assistance.”

Presidents Obama and George W. Bush have urged rapid progress toward free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, where Mr. Mugabe has ruled since 1980.

Mr. Abrahams’ documentary is to air Tuesday night on “Special Assignment,” a weekly television news feature of the South African Broadcasting Corp.

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