Sun, Apr 01, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Hit squads brand Mugabe rivals

THE GUARDIAN , HARARE

The whipping and beating came first, but it is the branding of Leonard Dendera that has left the most visible scar. As his attackers intended.

The round white mark is seared on to the black skin just above Dendera's right eye so that, according to the men wielding the iron bars and fan belts, the 25-year-old opposition activist abducted from a Harare street in broad daylight will be immediately recognizable to President Robert Mugabe's hit squads when they come across him again.

Dendera couldn't resist -- given the broken bones and lacerated flesh -- as something hot was burned on to his forehead before he was left virtually naked in the bush with a warning to keep out of politics.

"They said it was so they would always know who I was when they saw me on the street," he said from a Harare hospital bed. "It was a threat. I must stop opposing Robert Mugabe and if they saw me doing anything next time they would kill me."

Dendera is one of hundreds of opposition activists snatched from their homes or the street in recent days. Some are bundled into the back of pick-up trucks, driven out of town and, after the assaults, left naked. Others disappear for days, sometimes kept in torture centers at army barracks. Dendera is not alone in being branded.

About one in three of those abducted are women. Those kidnapped include MPs, members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, trade unionists and human rights workers, as the ruling Zanu-PF shifts away from using increasingly repressive laws to a greater reliance on violent intimidation.

"It's a terror tactic," said Tendai Biti, MDC secretary-general. "Mostly it's aimed at the local leadership. It's intended to intimidate people and make them give up the struggle, stop them organizing on the ground. The vigilante violence is increasing because the use of formal repressive units like the police is problematic. If you use a policeman people see it. We aren't breaking the law so they can't prosecute us. These vigilante abductions are a demonstration that they are running out of options."

The MDC estimates more than 200 people have been abducted this week. Dendera, an MDC local chairman, was snatched from a bus stop.

"They grabbed me and pushed me into the back of a pick-up and immediately started to beat me with batons and iron bars. They drove into the bush and beat me again. They said: `You are an MDC giant and we are going to beat you until you die,'" he said. "Then they branded me. I lost consciousness and when I came around I was next to a road."

Last Maengehama's crime was to sing in church. On Wednesday he was called from the congregation by the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, to lead the singing at a memorial service for Gift Tandare, who was killed by the police on the way to the anti-Mugabe rally at which Tsvangirai was beaten three weeks ago.

As Maengehama left the church he was abducted.

"They were urinating on my mouth. When I started shivering they thought I was going to die and left me there. After a while I managed to move slowly to the main road. I was naked except my underpants. I tried to stop the vehicles but they probably thought I was a mad person. There was a tractor going slowly so I got him to stop," he said.

Although there have been occasional beatings and disappearances since the rise of the MDC seven years ago, there has been an escalation since strikes by doctors and teachers at the start of the year.

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