Friday, June 2, 2006

North Korea’s government is often regarded as the worst example of autocratic misrule on earth, but Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is not far behind. The once-prosperous southern African nation now has a 1,040 percent annualized inflation rate and this week announced a new $100,000 banknote “to ensure convenience to the public.” It also declared potatoes a “strategic crop” for fear of shortages and prohibited their sale by anyone but the government.

As if all this weren’t evidence enough of staggering misrule, there was last year’s underreported “Operation Restore Order,” a tragic slum-clearing campaign which turned hundreds of thousands of poor Zimbabweans into refugees. The first tragic satellite imagery of that campaign, now public thanks to Amnesty International, shows terrible devastation at the hands of government thugs.

As a scathing July 2005 U.N. report documented, in May the government announced a campaign to bulldoze “illegal” dwellings and unauthorized vending sites in urban areas. By July police had wrecked the livelihoods and homes of a nearly unbelievable 700,000 poor Zimbabweans. As the report noted, many of the bulldozed towns were hotbeds of political opposition.

Amnesty International’s review of the satellite imagery this week demonstrates the complete destruction of one shantytown. The 16-year-old town “had schools, a children’s centre and a mosque” before it was flattened. Residents were given less than 24 hours to clear out. A heavily armed police convoy arrived and bulldozed the homes of helpless onlookers who were then “forcibly remove• ” on the backs of trucks.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, ever the optimist, told reporters that U.N. officials have been working on a deal for strongman Mr. Mugabe to step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution for his atrocities and an economic aid package for his beleaguered country. Immunity might seem generous, but clearly any settlement to remove Mr. Mugabe should be examined carefully. If U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan ends up going to Zimbabwe after all — he was invited, then recently disinvited by a Mugabe spokesman this week, now apparently invited again — any opportunity to end Mr. Mugabe’s rule should be top priority.

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