Peter Tatchell reveals OutRage!’s daring attempt to arrest the President of Zimbabwe on charges of torture and other human rights abuses.
Peter Tatchell and three other members of the gay rights group OutRage! attempted a citizen’s arrest of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe this morning, Saturday 30 October 1999, accusing his regime of condoning “murder, torture, detention without trial, and the abuse of gay human rights”.
They were seeking to arraign Mugabe in the same way that the British government had authorised the arrest of General Pinochet.
Citing UK and international law, OutRage! sought to arrest the Zimbabwean President and have him tried on charges of torture.
The attempted seizure of President Mugabe took place as his motorcade left the St James’s Court Hotel in Buckingham Gate, London SW1, where he had been staying during a “private” shopping visit to Britain.
Running out into the road in front of the Presidential motorcade, Tatchell’s three OutRage! colleagues – John Hunt, Alistair Williams and Chris Morris – forced the President’s car to stop.
Peter Tatchell ran from behind the President’s halted limousine, opened the rear door and grabbed the President by the arm: “President Mugabe, you are under arrest for torture”, Tatchell told the startled President. “Torture is a crime under international law”.
Turning to the President’s bodyguards, Tatchell said: “Call the police. The President is under arrest on charges of torture”.
Mugabe and his bodyguards reacted with stunned disbelief: “They looked confused, shocked and uncertain what to do next”, recalls Tatchell.
Tatchell remonstrated with the President, citing the torture of the Zimbabwean journalists Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka of The Standard newspaper in Harare.
According to documentation from Amnesty International:
“Military interrogators beat both men all over their bodies with fists, wooden planks and rubber sticks, particularly on the soles of their feet, and gave them electric shocks all over the body, including the genitals. The men were also subjected to ‘the submarine’ – having their heads wrapped in plastic bags and submerged in a water tank until they suffocated”.
(Amnesty International news release, 21 January 1999).
When the police arrived on the scene, they ignored the documentary evidence offered by Peter Tatchell of Choto’s and Chavunduka’s torture, refusing to even discuss the legal case against Mugabe. The dossier from Amnesty International and the Zimbabwe High Court was knocked aside by police officers.
Instead, the four OutRage! members were violently manhandled away from the President’s car by the police, while other officers aided the escape of the President. He was allowed to drive off and go Christmas shopping at Harrods.
Three of the four OutRage! members were arrested, and taken to Belgravia police station. They were held in the cells for nearly seven hours, and photographed, finger-printed and DNA-sampled. The three were not released until President Mugabe had completed his shopping and his plane had departed from Heathrow Airport for Zimbabwe.
Peter Tatchell explains:
“We were attempting to arrest Mugabe under Section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. This Act authorises the prosecution in Britain of any person who commits an act of torture anywhere in the world, as defined in the UN Convention Against Torture 1984, which Britain has ratified and pledged to enforce”.
“Under Section 24 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, ordinary citizen’s have the power to arrest a person who has committed a crime. We were seeking to exercise that lawful power when we tried to arrest President Mugabe”, said Tatchell.
On 16 November 1999, just over two weeks after their attempted arrest of President Mugabe, three of the four OutRage! members were formally charged with public order offences – Peter Tatchell, Alistair Williams and Chris Morris. They were charged under Sections 4 and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.
Initial police plans to charge Peter Tatchell with assaulting President Mugabe were dropped when the President and his bodyguards indicated to police that they were unwilling to return to Britain to testify in court against Mr Tatchell and his OutRage! colleagues.
At their first court appearance, on 19 November 1999 at Horseferry Road Magistrate’s Court, in London, all three OutRage! members pleaded “not guilty”.
“It is bizarre that we are being prosecuted for trying to stop torture, while the torturer is allowed to go free”, said Tatchell.
President Mugabe has denounced lesbians and gays as “sexual perverts”, “beasts” and “worse than dogs and pigs”. Rejecting calls for homosexual human rights, he has said: “we don’t believe they have any rights at all”.
Since his comments, lesbians and gays in Zimbabwe have been beaten, arrested, framed on trumped-up charges and threatened with death. In 1995, the human rights group Gays And Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) was banned from exhibiting at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. The following year, GALZ members were attacked and threatened by government stooges, forcing them to flee the Book Fair.
Although highlighting Mugabe’s attacks on the lesbian and gay community, OutRage!’s attempted citizen’s arrest also sought to draw world attention to the massacres in Matabeleland, bans on strikes and demonstrations, the closure and censorship of the press, restrictions on trade union rights, police brutality against non-violent protesters, and the Zimbabwean government’s defiance of the judicial rulings against a wide range of human rights abuses.
“Mugabe has got away with human rights abuses for years”, said Peter Tatchell. “The time has come to show him that he cannot torture and abuse people with impunity”.
“On the evidence we presented of the torture suffered by Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka, the Metropolitan Police and Attorney-General had a legal duty to authorise the arrest and prosecution of President Mugabe. Their failure to enforce the law against torture is an abdication of their legal responsibilities”.
“Mugabe is a violently homophobic tyrant who is implicated in the torture, murder, disappearance and imprisonment without trial of thousands of people. To allow him to go Christmas shopping at Harrods is a dereliction of Britain’s obligations under UK and international law”, said Tatchell.
When the “Mugabe Three” case came to trial at Horseferry Road Magistrate’s Court on 10 December 1999, the Crown Prosecution Service declined to offer any evidence. All charges against the three OutRage! defendants were dropped.
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* Various versions of this news release were distributed by OutRage! on 30 October 1999, and in the weeks that followed.