Peter Tatchell was beaten up and briefly knocked unconscious as he attempted to stage a citizen’s arrest of the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Brussels on Monday 5 March 2001
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was beaten up and briefly knocked unconscious as he attempted to stage a citizen’s arrest of the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Brussels today, Monday 5 March 2001.
As Mr Tatchell tried to arrest the President on charges of torture under the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, he was punched and kicked by Mugabe’s bodyguards, who knocked him to the ground three times.
Belgian secret service agents stepped aside and gave the President’s security men free rein to beat Tatchell until he blacked out and fell into the gutter outside the Hilton Hotel. “Mugabe has bought his thuggery to the streets of Europe“, said Tatchell.
Two Zimbabwean agents, believed to be members of Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), threatened to have Tatchell traced and killed:
“You are dead“, said one. “We will find and kill you“, said the other.
“The assaults on me by the President’s bodyguards highlight the repressive, intolerant nature of the Mugabe regime“, said Mr Tatchell.
“This protest was an attempt to remind Mugabe that sooner or later he will be arrested and put on trial for torture and other human rights abuses, such as the massacres in Matabeleland, the terrorisation of the judiciary and political opponents, and attacks on the lesbian and gay community”.
“I am lucky to escape with a beating. If any Zimbabwean had staged this protest in Harare, they would have been shot”, added Mr Tatchell.
Belgium has incorporated the 1984 UN Convention into its domestic legislation. According to Belgian law, the authorities are under a legal obligation to arrest any person, present in Belgian territory, who has committed or authorised acts of torture anywhere in the world.
As President Mugabe was walking through the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, after a meeting the EU Commissioner, Poul Nielson, Mr Tatchell slipped between his bodyguards and tried to effect a citizen’s arrest. He calmly approached the President, with open hands to show that he had no weapon, saying:
“I am putting you under arrest on charges of torture under the United Nations Convention Against Torture 1984. It is said that you authorised the torture of Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka”.
Tatchell’s latter words were muffled, as he was punched and shoved by the President’s bodyguards. Four of them – assisted by a Belgian secret service officer who tried to cover his mouth to stop him speaking – pushed Mr Tatchell into a corner of the hotel lobby, punching and kicking him.
Most of this first assault – and all of the subsequent two assaults – took place after the President had already passed, and was no longer near Tatchell. At no stage did Mr Tatchell pose any threat to the President or offer any resistance to the assaults he experienced. Journalists and photographers were also manhandled by the Zimbabweans.
With President Mugabe momentarily stuck in the hotel’s revolving door, Mr Tatchell ran through the emergency exit to confront him outside on the pavement. But he was grabbed around the neck by two Belgian secret service agents who pushed him backwards and slammed his head against the plate glass window of the Hilton Hotel. They put their hands across his mouth in an attempt to muzzle Mr Tatchell’s cries of: “Mugabe is a torturer. Arrest the torturer”.
While these Belgian agents were holding him, two members of President Mugabe’s entourage came up to Tatchell. They threatened him: “You are dead”, and “We will find you and kill you”. The Belgian agents took no action against these death threats.
One of President Mugabe’s minders went to punch Mr Tatchell in the face, but seeing the Belgian agents, he desisted. The Belgian secret service men then let go of Tatchell and walked away, giving the two Zimbabweans a free hand to punch Mr Tatchell on the head, knocking him to the ground.
“The Belgian authorities were complicit in this violence. By standing back and doing nothing, they gave Mugabe’s henchmen an open invitation to assault me”, said Tatchell.
The Zimbabweans then turned their wrath on the journalists, pushing and shoving them. BBC reporter, Angus Roxburgh, was grabbed by the throat.
While the President’s bodyguards sought to get him into his limousine, Mr Tatchell ran around behind the melee, and stood in front of the limousine as it attempted to leave – forcing the President’s car to halt.
Within seconds, one of the President’s bodyguards got out of his vehicle and punched Mr Tatchell in the side of the head, knocking him unconscious and into the gutter.
The Presidential motorcade then sped off for Mugabe’s meeting with the Belgium Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt.
After recovering, Mr Tatchell went to the Prime Minister’s office in Rue Lambermont, determined to confront Mugabe again.
While waiting outside, he was filmed by the Zimbabwean Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). “For our records”, they told him, adding sinisterly: “Now we have got you on film, we can find you”.
As Mugabe was about to leave the Prime Minister’s office, his bodyguards and presumed CIO agents came out into the street. The Zimbabwean agent who had punched Tatchell in the face outside the Hilton Hotel and threatened to kill him, pointed out Tatchell to his colleagues. He then started to walk straight towards Tatchell, reaching under his jacket, as if he had a gun.
The Belgian uniformed police and secret service agents confirmed to Tatchell that the President’s security men were “armed and very dangerous”. But they made no attempt to stop the Zimbabweans menacing Tatchell.
“At that moment, I was in fear of my life. I thought the Zimbabwean agent probably had a gun and might try to shoot me”, said Tatchell.
As Mugabe left, Tatchell shouted: “Mugabe, murderer! Mugabe, torturer!”
As a result of the attacks by President Mugabe’s minders, Mr Tatchell left Brussels with very severe bruising over most of his body, damaged ligaments and tendons, lacerations and abrasions, impaired vision in his left eye, severe headache, and periodic memory loss and split-second blackouts.
The pro-Mugabe newspaper in Zimbabwe, The Herald, wrote on 7 March 2001:
“(Tatchell) should be thankful the President’s security men did not shoot him down like a dog … The severe beating meted out to Tatchell is a good signal that restores national pride”.
Peter Tatchell and other members of the queer rights group OutRage! previously attempted a citizen’s arrest of President Mugabe in London in October 1999 – Full details can be seen by clicking here