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Democracy

Zimbabwe trade unionist rests after persecution

A former trade unionist from Zimbabwe is the guest of the Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People. DW profiles Eddson Chakuma, who was persecuted in Zimbabwe merely for organizing a discussion.

An apartment in a nondescript building on a busy street in downtown Hamburg has become Eddson Chakuma's home for the next 12 months. The 38-year-old former trade unionist is a quiet and friendly man - it's difficult to believe that the Zimbabwean authorities would see in him a menace to the state.

But in March 2011, a court charged Chakuma and five others with treason. They had been arrested at a political event they'd organized, where they'd screened and debated a video about the political uprisings that were taking place at the time in a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries.

'Political discussion'

The meeting was nothing more than a political discussion, said Chakuma, and the Arab Spring was only one of several items on the agenda. Despite this, the police evidently had an undercover agent at the event, who sent text messages to his bosses while it was going on.

"Before our meeting ended, that's when the police barged into the room where we were, and we were arrested," Chakuma told DW. All 45 of them, including eight or nine women, were taken into custody.

Once they'd arrived at Harare Central Police Station, the undercover officer pointed out three speakers at the meeting. Eddson Chakuma, Welcome Zimuto and Hopewell Gumbo were taken into cells in the basement of the police station.

There the police told the three to write down what they had said and heard in the meeting. After writing down what they had discussed, the police - apparently dissatisfied - began to beat them.

46 social and human rights activists appear in court in Harare, February 2011

Forty-five people who had been at the meeting faced court

"They wanted us to write something which incriminated us; maybe they were going to use it in court. But we wrote exactly what we had said," Chakuma reported.

Others who had been at the meeting were also interrogated. Some allege that they were beaten on the soles of their feet by police officers. Four days after their arrest, the prisoners were sent to remand prison by a magistrates' court.

According to Chakuma, the conditions in the cells at the police station were not good - there were no blankets, the toilets had no running water and the prisoners were denied food. Remand prison, Chakuma said, was even worse.

Possible death sentence

At remand prison, the activists were put into solitary confinement.

Eddson Chakuma

Chakuma is ready for a break after his treason trial

"You don't have access to any books or to anybody whom you can talk to," said Chakuma. "You'll be given an hour in the morning to go out and wash. So, actually 23 hours in the confinement cell, then one hour in the morning just to get out."

After a week, the court released 39 of the 45 prisoners. Although their solitary confinement ended, Chakuma and five others were kept in prison and charged with treason for showing the Arab Spring video at the meeting.

Chakuma was frightened when he found out that newspapers suggested they could receive the death sentence: "Everybody was toying around, saying if they don't get the death sentence, they'll get 10 or 20 years. It was traumatic - even to my family - that my name would be written in the newspaper with a suggestion of a sentence of death."

After a further three weeks in remand prison, Chakuma and the five others were granted bail. Their court case, however, dragged on.

A year in fear

In the end, the treason case lasted from March of last year to February of this year.

Chakuma described the uncertainty as the worst part. After receiving a guilty verdict and while waiting for the court's sentence, the six activists "had to think again - is that death which is coming? Is that 10 years which is coming? Is that 20 years coming?" It was a traumatic experience.

After two weeks in limbo, Chakuma and the five others found out they had been sentenced to 420 hours of community service, a fine of $500, and a two-year suspended prison sentence. They paid their fines and began their community service.

Their lawyers appealed to a higher court, which suspended the sentence. They are still awaiting the final decision, so the ordeal is not over.

Wary of people power

For Chakuma, the authorities' reaction to the meeting he helped organize is a sign that little has changed in Zimbabwe despite the fact that the former opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been part of the government, with its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister, under a power-sharing agreement since 2008.

His imprisonment, Chakuma believes, reveals the government's fear of possible uprisings. "In Egypt and Tunisia the revolutions ... were aimed at actually trying to get rid of dictators," Chakuma said. "If Egyptian people can say no to Mubarak, why can't the people in Zimbabwe say no to Mugabe?"

President Robert Mugabe sitting next to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai

Mugabe and Tsvangirai have governed in a coalition since 2008

But he still hopes that Zimbabwe will move toward greater democracy under a new constitution guaranteeing free and fair elections. "We'll have a democratic space whereby everybody's allowed to express whatever he wants to express. And we'll have a country, which has no human rights abuses. And at the end of the day we attract investors - those are my wishes, actually."

Looking to the future

An additional source of worry for Chakuma was the fact that his employer, the United Food and Allied Workers Union, let him go from his job as an organizing secretary because of work he missed while in prison.

Now, months later, Chakuma is living in Germany as a guest of the Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People. The organization regularly invites to Germany people who are being persecuted for political activity in their home countries.

Chakuma is grateful to the foundation, he said, because its invitation to Germany came when he most needed some time to rest. He will be staying in Germany for a year with his wife Lydia, and is considering his next steps, including studying towards a degree in labor law and political economy.

Although he holds out hope for his country, Chakuma may be away for a while. But he added that anything he achieves academically during his time in Germany will be put to use in Zimbabwe, to help make his dreams for the country come true.

DW.DE