As repression has grown in Zimbabwe, BASILDON PETA of the Independent has found unsought prominence as a champion of freedom. But this week came the reprisals.




HARARE - "Look, you are in a VIP cell. You don't have to worry. We will attend to you when we are ready," the detective barked.



I knew then I was in for a long night.



The tiny cell I was being dumped in was next to a stinking blocked toilet, whose flushing system seemed to have failed over a decade ago. The suffocating stench wafted straight into the next room.

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The floors and the walls of my cell were filthy. The few sticks of furniture were collapsing with age.



For my night in Harare Central, the notorious headquarters of President Robert Mugabe's state security agents, I was given a few broken planks of wood on which to spend the night.



I was not surprised, however. When I first heard that armed detectives were hunting for me on Thursday night (Friday NZT), I could almost have predicted everything that would play out over the next couple of days.



I knew I would have to suffer for an imaginary crime I did not commit.



I knew that there would be nothing imaginary about the way the police would treat me in their filthy, dimly lit cells and offices at the Harare Central police station.



And I suspected that at the 11th hour - after Mugabe's state security agents had drawn sadistic pleasure from their treatment of me - all charges would be dropped.



I knew also that the police would show no remorse and would not bother to apologise for their unconstitutional and illegal treatment of me.



In short, I was aware that in any contest with Mugabe's agents, I would always come second. So I did not even bother to ask why the police officials had stormed my home at dawn local time on Saturday as if they were hunting for a bank robber or an armed terrorist.



I tried to cooperate all the way through, even though I knew the crime they were purporting to investigate was a hoax.



I suggested they stop looking for me and I promised I would surrender soon after finishing the private family business that had occupied me for the previous two days.



But that did not stop them from pretending I was not cooperating.



Despite the fact that my lawyer had managed to arrange an appointment for Sunday, they still saw fit to go to my house on Saturday and force their way in without a search warrant. They ransacked the house, knowing that I was not at home.



I returned from Johannesburg and while the police headed to my house I went to turn myself in. At 1.45 pm on Monday (12.45 am on Tuesday NZT) they arrested me.



For the second time in four months I walked down the stairs into the basement of a shabby building that would not look out of place in the middle of Kabul.



There I was dumped into the wretched cell beside that foul-smelling lavatory and left there for what seemed like an eternity.



Despite the efforts of my lawyer, Tawanda Hondora, to prepare all the paperwork so that we could proceed directly to the courts, the police were intent on making it a long wait.



They went about their business as if I was not there. There was a good reason - after the courts close they have to keep you overnight.



Late into the night, one of the officers called and announced my crime - I had failed to notify the police about a demonstration by a group of journalists to protest against a media law that is widely seen as likely to eliminate independent journalism in Zimbabwe.



The crime, covered under the new Public Order and Security Act, carries a two-year jail sentence, plus a hefty fine of $Z100,000 ($4335).



I immediately contested the charge, saying that under the act, professional associations are exempt from seeking police permission to demonstrate.



The Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, of which I am secretary-general, is a professional body and allowed to demonstrate against anything affecting the interests of its members.



The discussion went nowhere.



My interrogator suddenly changed tone and wanted me to help him locate Andy Meldrum of the Foreign Correspondents Association and the Guardian, so that he could also be arrested for co-organising the demonstration.



I refused to cooperate - not least because I don't know Meldrum's home address. The officer left. My incarceration continued.



Dawn came, and I was taken from the cell. Armed police officers hurled themselves into the back of my car. I was told to drive them to the courts via the Attorney-General's office.



Here my fate for the next two years would be decided. Making me drive myself felt like another insult: it was as if they would not waste the petrol on me.



At the Attorney-General's office I was left in the vehicle under armed guard.



After a long period, one of my interrogators came down smiling and showed me some notes written by the office on my documents saying that I had no case to answer.



The demonstration was perfectly legal, and if the police thought otherwise, they would have to prove it. I was ordered to drive my jailers back to the police station. End of story.



Not for the police. Spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said: "The Attorney-General has ordered us to carry out further investigations and we will revisit the matter once we are ready."



Zimbabwe has certainly reached breaking point. The future looks gloomy. Mugabe is not about to concede that the country needs a fresh start without him. He wants another six-year term, by hook or by crook.



The international community has let him off the hook.



Despite all the murders of his opponents, all the illegal arrests of perceived opponents, the pillaging of a once-promising economy and the passing of some of the most repressive laws imaginable, the European Union says: "We will not impose smart sanctions for now because he is doing nothing to block the deployment of EU election observers."



But is the admission of these observers worth all the people who have lost their lives, their property and their livelihood because of the unbridled ambitions of a power-crazed geriatric dictator? I can only wonder.



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