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Jestina Mukoko of Zimbabwe On Trial

Since Zimbabwe's disputed elections last year, many women have been bravely protesting their country's political and economic free-fall. Now, one of them is awaiting trial and Mugabe preparing to govern alone. Hope is fading fast.

Women have figured more prominently in the resistance over the past 10 years and have become increasingly visible. Often they face the police with the bearing and confidence of mothers, grandmothers and older women who deserve traditional respect.

One of them is Jestina Mukoko. The Harare-based Zimbabwe Peace Project nonprofit group that she heads has been documenting political violence and human rights abuses since 2000.

The project made sure the world heard about Abigail Chiroto, wife of Emmanuel Chiroto, who won the important position of mayor of Harare, the nation's capital, last March, when elections also swept other members of his Movement for Democratic Change party to a majority in the parliament.

Last June, a gang of armed state agents drove three white, unmarked cabs to the Chiroto home. They came to abduct and torture Emmanuel for being a member of the opposition who had unseated a ZANU-PF incumbent. Such practice is now standard procedure in this fallen democracy.

What happened next has come to me through online radio broadcasts, blogs and journalists who have been reporting in the region.

Emmanuel was not home, but Abigail was. As the cars pulled up, everyone on the premises immediately fled, fear in their eyes. Abigail was left behind, frantically searching for her 4-year-old son. The state agents were in no mood for disappointment. They petrol-bombed their house and abducted Abigail and her son. Days later her burned, lifeless body was found at a nearby farm, still wearing a blindfold. Her son is lucky to be alive, but now lives a life without his mother's love and protection. Emmanuel went into hiding.

Mukoko is part of a brave group of women that includes Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu of a group called WOZA, which stands for Women of Zimbabwe Arise. They are boldly pro-democracy and protest peacefully.

Last year, Women of Zimbabwe Arise activists whimsically handed out red roses to police on Valentine's Day in a protest designed to "disarm" officers who routinely use tear gas, fists and clubs to dismiss peaceful protests.

Without women like Mukoko, Williams and Mahlangu, the already dim light of hope in Zimbabwe would have flickered out long ago. But standing up is very dangerous. At 5 a.m. on Dec. 3, 15 armed men in plain clothes turned up at Mukoko's home just outside of Harare. Still in her nightgown, she answered the door. Silently and swiftly she was taken away. Her whereabouts were unknown for three weeks.

Her son immediately alerted civic society groups who demanded her release. The state remained tight-lipped, denying involvement in her disappearance but also refusing to investigate it. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who has been putting pressure on the region to intervene in Zimbabwe, joined others in expressing concern about her wellbeing.

The police had denied knowledge of her whereabouts but on Dec. 24 they brought Mukoko and 31 other activists before the high court on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government, a ludicrous and unsubstantiated claim.

In her first public appearance since the abduction, Mukoko's face and body appeared swollen and bruised. BBC video footage showed her looking stoical as she was led into police custody, showing a peace and calm in the face of those who had brutalized her.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, a Harare-based activist group, demanded her immediate release to receive medical treatment.

Judge Alphias Chitakunye allowed a doctor to examine her but ordered her to Chikurubi maximum security prison to await trial immediately afterward.

Mukoko spoke to her lawyer, respected human rights activist Beatrice Mtetwa, of her ordeal.

Mtetwa knows about police brutality firsthand. She was assaulted while in police custody in 2003. According to South African news reports, Mukoko described being beaten repeatedly on the soles of her feet with a hard, rubber object. She spoke of being interrogated while being forced to kneel on gravel, blindfolded. All the while state agents beat her. They were drunk and their fists struck again and again.

The rule of law in Zimbabwe exists now as a formality without meaning.

Last week, Mugabe dissolved his cabinet in preparation for forming a new, exclusive government. But for Zimbabweans engaged in the daily hustle for survival, government means nothing. Hope is fading. There is nothing left except a strong need for survival, violence and, above all, the perseverance of the women of Zimbabwe.

The author is a writer and sociologist who lives in New York. She is currently working on a memoir about growing up in Zimbabwe. Her name is withheld because criticism of the government puts her at risk of government persecution.

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