World and Nation

To Gain Amnesty, Mugabe’s Lieutenants Use More Violence

President Robert Mugabe’s top lieutenants are trying to force the political opposition into granting them amnesty for their past crimes by abducting, detaining and torturing opposition officials and activists, according to senior members of Mugabe’s party.

Mugabe’s generals and politicians have organized campaigns of terror for decades to keep him and his party in power. But now that the opposition has a place in the nation’s new government, these strongmen worry that they are suddenly vulnerable to prosecution, especially for crimes committed during last year’s election campaign while the world watched.

“Their faces were immediately pasted on the wall for everyone to see that they were behind the killing, the violence, the torture and intimidation,” said a senior official in Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, who, like others in the party, spoke anonymously because he was describing its criminal history.

To protect themselves, some of Mugabe’s lieutenants are trying to implicate opposition officials in a supposed plot to overthrow the president, hoping to use it as leverage in any amnesty talks or to press the opposition into quitting the government altogether, ruling party officials said.

Like South Africa at the end of apartheid or Liberia at the close of Charles Taylor’s reign, Zimbabwe is in the midst of a treacherous passage from authoritarian rule to an uncertain future. After a bloody election season last year stained by the state-sponsored beatings and killings of opposition supporters, Mugabe and his rivals in the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, agreed to a power-sharing government that includes both victimizers and victims.

But Mugabe’s lieutenants, part of an inner circle called the Joint Operations Command, know that their 85-year-old leader may not be around much longer to shield them, and fear losing not just their power and ill-gotten wealth, but their freedom, officials in the party said.

Their fixation on getting amnesty was described by four senior ruling party officials, all Mugabe confidants, who spoke to a Zimbabwean journalist working for The New York Times. But some opposition officials say Mugabe’s loyalists are less interested in reaching a deal than in simply forcing them out of the new government through violence and intimidation. Others suspect a push for amnesty is being sought by a broad contingent of Mugabe’s party worried about accounting for the past.