SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma speaks to former student leader Hopewell Gumbo, one of 6 activists charged with treason after addressing a February meeting in Harare where video footage of protests in Egypt and Tunisia was screened. Gumbo narrates how police disrupted the meeting, tortured them in the cells and how they were kept in solitary confinement at the Chikurubi Maximum Security prison in Harare.
Interview broadcast 28 March 2011
Lance Guma: Hallo Zimbabwe and welcome to Behind the Headlines. This week my guest is former student leader Hopewell Gumbo who alongside other human rights activists like Munyaradzi Gwisai, Welcome Zimuto and others spent a considerable time in custody and they are of course still charged with treason over a meeting where it was alleged that they watched video footage of protests in Egypt and Tunisia and plotted to overthrow the Mugabe regime.
Hopewell thank you for joining us on the programme.
Hopewell Gumbo: You are welcome Lance.
Guma: OK now let’s go back to that venue in Julius Nyerere Way and talk us through the meeting itself, what it was for.
Gumbo: Yah the meeting had been organised by the International Socialist Organisation and the Zimbabwe Labour Centre for two primary issues. The first one was a commemoration of a comrade who was HIV positive and was a progressive leader in the social and economic justice around those affected by HIV and Aids.
And also the meeting was to discuss the events that were taking place in North Africa and particularly Egypt and Tunisia, where by that date, Mubarak had left power and also in Tunisia, Ben Ali had also left power and the discussion centred around drawing lessons from those two experiences, the lessons which could be used by Egyptian working class movements and other parts of Africa which also included Zimbabwe and so forth.
So those were the key, two main items for the meeting and within that, there was video footage that had been transcribed from Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN and other news points that was shown to predominately working class comrades from the high density suburbs of Harare, some of whom would not have access to satellite dishes and may not have seen these events unfold in the country, so they’d also got the opportunity to see this through the video that had been availed by the organisers of the meeting.
Guma: So how was this meeting disrupted because we understand this was a closed meeting, the venue was secure but the police found their way there and bull-dozed their way in?
Gumbo: The police or whoever they were working in association with have told us and the country at large, that a spy had been planted in the meeting to partake in the events of the meeting. But the meeting was disrupted just at the point when events of the commemoration of the fallen comrade who died of Aids was about to begin.
So it was after the discussion, the watching of the video and after the presentations on the, from the floor and the presentations by the main presenter who was Munyaradzi Gwisai at the meeting, so the police arrived at a time when events were changing, we were now going into commemoration of the comrade.
Guma: So when the police arrived, what did they do?
Gumbo: When the police arrived, I think there were about 30 or so police officers, mainly in plain clothes and some other members of the Central Intelligence Organisation who were leading team of those who arrested us and one key member who is responsible for the law and order stationed at Harare Police Station.
So they entered the building or rather the room where the meeting was taking place and they also searched rooms all over the building and collected everybody who was in the building at that time and everybody was advised to go out of the building and go to the central police station in, the police truck that was parked outside and surrounded by heavily armed police officers.
So everybody was collected and we were taken to the Central Police Station.
Guma: Initially we heard that over 54 people or so were arrested. The numbers were conflicting because obviously it was very difficult for people to collect information at that juncture, but in the end it was only six people that they were later just interested in. We heard some reports suggesting the six of you got special treatment in the cells. Talk us through how that went.
Gumbo: When the police took us in their truck and we were dumped at a bay at Harare Central Police Station in the car park, immediately a CIO went to their offices and returned within about five minutes. With them was a gentleman who supposedly was supposed to be part of the meeting, he is the one who came and identified those who had spoken at the meeting and these included myself, Welcome Zimuto, Edison Chakuma and they also took with them the caretaker of the building which was manning the gate.
So we were taken to the CIO offices unlabeled offices in one of the sections of the law and order at Harare Central Police Station and immediately we were subjected to heavy beating which lasted for about two to three hours before we were finally taken to a room in the Law and Order Section, I think it’s office number 97 where we then found out that some of our colleagues had actually been detained in that office.
So that was on the first day; it was clear that they were just going to aim at those who spoke at the meeting and during the interrogation they also indicated that they were going to be interested in who funded the meeting and also who had organised the meeting. So those were the key questions they were asking us during the interrogations in the first and second day.
Guma: Now during your time in custody, obviously I was speaking to your lawyers throughout and they expressed frustration with the whole process – how the prosecutors were delaying, the police were delaying, the State was just throwing spanners in the works to try and make sure you spent as much time in custody.
At one time the magistrate hearing your case didn’t even show up, saying they had attended a meeting and then we were later told it was a meeting with the Chief Justice – for you guys inside, did you get feedback on what was happening outside in terms of these delays?
Gumbo: We tried as much as possible to get contact and feedback from our lawyer through a variety of means, we also tried to encourage our spouses, our friends, other comrades to make sure that they tried as much as possible to maintain contact with us while we were in prison.
It was obviously a very traumatic experience whenever we anticipated to hear about the developments on our case and probably at times that did not come so it caused quite a lot of anxiety.
But I must say that we were also making our calculations when we were in prison in that we had agreed amongst ourselves that the State was prepared to go as much as possible and make sure that we were in custody.
We were also clear that the schemes, the difficulties in bringing up a case in these circumstances and if anything they would then attempt to make sure they give us the maximum punishment before even the time we arrive at the courts because they were clear that their issue, their case did not hold any water.
But we constantly got the feedback and we were also disappointed at times when we could hear in court the prosecutor, with all his venom, trying to make sure that we remain in custody as much as possible.
But all the same we had told ourselves we had mobilised ourselves and agreed to ourselves that this is going to be a long haul and we had tried ourselves to prepare for a very long battle given the unpredictable nature of the State as had been shown by the venom that the prosecutor had during the few times we had appeared in court. So we tried to psyche ourselves up to that.
Guma: There was some suggestion also a few of your colleagues – I don’t know whether you were also one of them – were held in solitary confinement for more than a week. Is that true?
Gumbo: Yah that’s true very much and it’s a eqaution we are still battling to try and find out why they had done that. I must say that the remand prison was a different scenario from what we had experienced at the Harare Police Station and so forth but the environment was a bit more secure, we felt a bit more secure, we did not receive as much harsh treatment from the prison officers and so forth.
We constantly had, we were called for meetings with the officer in charge who requested if we had any problems and so forth and we were free to air our views. We were also free to protest against a few things that we thought were not good for us in prison. But we were surprised one day when 17 or 18 of us were called out and in our own analysis, the 18 resembled the leadership of the group.
So which meant that they had divided the 34 people who were at Harare Central Remand Prison into two groups and we were called first to collect all our belongings before we were immediately whisked away to purportedly to Chikurubi but only to be returned after a honeymoon drive in the suburb, we drove in the suburbs of Harare next to the remand prison and our suspicion was that they were attempting to make sure that we avoid contact with Minister (Tendai) Biti who had arrived for to visit us and see us in prison during that time.
Then we were kept again for another two or three days at Harare Central Remand Prison before again at around lock up time we were told, the 17 of us were again called and we marched to the nearby and next door Harare Central Prison where we were locked into the dangerous section of the prison which they call the D section in single rooms which was more or less like solitary confinement.
And we were supposed to, we were in our rooms for 23 hours and we would only get 30 minutes in the morning and they called it exercise time and another 30 minutes in the afternoon during the lunchtime so those were the only times we were allowed to be outside.
So it was more or less solitary confinement so that we also did not take it lightly, we protested that on the second day and I should say we managed to win our battle because we were allowed more time to stay outside then.
Guma: Now a judge eventually granted each of you two thousand US dollars bail and with conditions to report three times a week to the police. Your reaction to the bail being set at such a high, high figure – I mean two thousand – there was even a day’s delay while this money was raised.
Gumbo: Yah the State and probably the judge’s argument is that treason is a high level offence and probably deserves such a high amount of bail and those stringent conditions. But I must say those conditions are not comfortable at all and I’m sure the next appearance at court, we are going to be challenging those conditions.
But never-the-less we took it as it came because we thought at least we could get our liberty because we were now also longing to meet our loved ones, our families and proceed with the kind of work that we do in our respective areas.
So we took it as it was and I should say, I want to thank comrades in Zimbabwe and all over the world who responded to a call for a fighting fund to assist in the payment of bail and assisting families of comrades who were a bit disadvantaged when they had been arrested during that time.
So we also hope this kind of support is meant to continue because obviously we will continue to fight these bail conditions and hope some sanity will have been knocked into some of these people who are presiding over these offices.
Guma: Well Hopewell we are running out of time, just finally, final question, drawing from your experience and looking at political developments in Zimbabwe, what do you make of this whole crackdown? What are its implications and where are we headed to?
Gumbo: I must say my feeling is that ZANU PF feels rejuvenated, it feels there are no punches to it and the government, or rather the regime of Robert Mugabe is determined through any means to make sure that they cling on to any semblance of power that they have here.
So to civic society and the general democratic movement in this country I say, people must not sit on their laurels and sit and dine over this government of national unity that this is currently prevailing.
ZANU PF is gearing itself for a total demolition of the opposition and civic groups in whatever form and I think the democratic forces are at a low ebb with these blows that are coming from ZANU PF and sooner or later the people must rise and defend their livelihood and reorganise themselves in order to fight this kind of dictatorship.
Guma: Well Zimbabwe that’s former student leader Hopewell Gumbo who was one of the activists who spent a considerable time in custody and also in remand prison charged of course with treason for attending a meeting that screened video footage of protests in Egypt and Tunisia.
He is currently facing treason charges, out on bail, two thousand US dollars bail. Well Hopewell, thank you so much for joining us on the programme and just sparing your time to talk about what you went through.
Gumbo: Thank you very much and you are welcome Lance.
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