Anti-Mugabe Lawsuit in the US Finds Support in Africa

By Julius Mokaya | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Nairobi ( - The filing of a lawsuit in the United States against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, accused of human rights abuses, has been welcomed in Africa as a major step to help promote good governance on the continent.

Analysts describe the case as a legal landmark, expressing the hope it may lead to Mugabe and other African dictators suspected of rights violations being compelled to account for their deeds.

The lawsuit has been brought by victims of violence that occurred during the weeks leading up to Zimbabwe's troubled elections last June. Papers were served on Mugabe during his visit to New York to attend the United Nations millennium summit.

"The US government should use her mighty powers to ensure Mugabe and indeed other African dictators pay for the crimes their regimes have committed. They should not be allowed to go scot-free," said political science professor Tom Ondeyo of the University of Nairobi.

An Organization of African Unity (OAU) official in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,
said the suit should be allowed to proceed as long as it did not interfere
with Zimbabwe's sovereignty.

As long as Mugabe and his supporters were sued without involving Zimbabwe as a nation, "we back the move," the official said.

"Zimbabweans have a right to seek redress elsewhere if they cannot get justice and fairness at home. In fact, Mugabe has been sued as an individual [as well as] his party, [and] we hope he would not suck his country into the case."

A US official based in Nairobi said, "Such a suit should not be taken lightly as it could lead to Mugabe and his regime being ostracized by the international community and even being subjected to certain international sanctions."

Relatives of three people killed, and another who was allegedly assaulted, in the days leading to the Zimbabwe elections announced Sunday that they had filed a $400 million lawsuit against Mugabe in Manhattan district court.

They are demanding compensation for the loss of lives and property during pre-election violence, allegedly condoned by Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party.

The plaintiffs said they filed the suit in the US because of the breakdown of law and order in Zimbabwe and the failure of police to arrest and prosecute criminals.

The suit was filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, which gives foreigners the right to file civil suits in US courts for injuries suffered in violation of international law.

Lawyers for Maria Stevens, Elliot Pfebve, Adella Chiminya and Evelyn Masaiti indicated they hoped to broaden the suit into a class action on behalf of the families of at least 28 others killed during the violent campaign.

Most of the dead were supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Others were allegedly assaulted and raped and had houses and other properties destroyed.

"The same level of violence that was perpetuated against opponents during and after the elections could still resurface, but we are prepared for any eventuality for the purpose of justice," Pfebve, an MDC official who lost his brother, was quoted as saying.

"It should serve as a lesson not only to Mugabe but to any future leader that they have to be accountable for their actions," he said of the legal move.

Stevens' husband, David, was a white farmer killed by self-styled veterans of Zimbabwe's independence war and ZANU-PF supporters who have staged violent invasions of white-owned farms often since February with Mugabe's support.

Chiminya's husband, Tendai, a driver for MDC President Morgan Tsvangirai, was burnt to death during a campaign assignment.

At the polls, the MDC offered Mugabe's party, in power since independence in 1980, its stiffest electoral challenge in history, grabbing 57 of 120 contested seats in parliament.

International monitors said the months of political violence and farm invasions had prevented the polls from being free and fair.

An Amnesty International official based in Nairobi, Peter Muigah, asked the US government to support the lawsuit. If Mugabe does not compensate the victims of his atrocities, his assets should be frozen wherever they are worldwide.

However, an aide to Mugabe was quoted as saying the suit was irrelevant and would not move the president or his supporters.

"It is a nonevent and [the plaintiffs] know it to be such," said the aide, George Charamba.

The spate of unrest started in February, when Mugabe supporters began occupying white-owned farms. About 1,700 farms were affected in the campaign, which Mugabe has called a justified protest against unfair land distribution.

The white descendants of mostly British and South African colonial-era settlers own about a third of the nation's prime land on which about two million black farmworkers and their families live.

Mugabe has announced that he will nationalize 3,041 white-owned properties before November for distribution to landless blacks.

Critics have alleged that previous land "redistribution" efforts have benefited individuals close to Mugabe rather than the most needy Zimbabweans.