Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Human Rights Abuses.
With the permission of the House I will share my time with Senators Norris and Henry. I raise the case of Mr. Roy Bennett, MP, who is detained in Zimbabwe without trial in circumstances that are completely and utterly unacceptable under democratic rule. I raise the motion in the hope that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, or indeed, the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, will bring the matter to the attention of the Zimbabwean Government and make a protest on behalf of the people of Ireland. This is a very serious case in which Mr. Roy Bennett, an elected MP who had suffered great provocation and oppression from the Government of Mr. Mugabe, was speaking in parliament and was provoked by the Minister for Justice. Nobody suggests that there was no wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Bennett, but he pushed the Minister for Justice under great provocation from the Zanu-PF benches.
That is not something that any parliamentarian can approve of or condone, but the punishment that has been inflicted on him has been utterly unfair, disproportionate and totally undemocratic. Mr. Bennett has been sentenced to 17 months imprisonment, a year to be served and five months, I gather, suspended. This was imposed not by a court of law but by a parliamentary committee set up by Zanu-PF and then endorsed by a parliament rigged in favour of that party. We all know what happened in the last elections there and that the outcome was unacceptable and not recognised by any government, particularly ours.
I am asking the Government first of all to protest about the procedures which allow any member of a parliament to be judged by his peers and then given a custodial sentence. I do not understand why this man could not have been given a fair trial outside a political kangaroo court. Had that happened, he would not have received the same sentence. It is extremely convenient, with the elections coming up in Zimbabwe, that a vocal and articulate opponent of this type, should be silenced by being put in jail.
The second objection the Minister should make — and it is a human rights objection in every case — is not just to the lack of independent judgment, but to the disproportionate and unfair sentence meted out. It seems that not alone are the procedures wrong, but the sentence is unnecessarily severe. I do not believe that in any civil case outside of parliament an offence of this type would be followed by a custodial sentence. It should be noted that the Minister for Justice who is protesting so strongly that he was assaulted, got up and spoke immediately afterwards at length, and was quite capable of doing so.
The third reason is that Mr. Bennett's right to appeal has been violated. It would be fair if the Government made representations to ask that Mr. Bennett be released from jail on bail, in order to be a candidate in the forthcoming elections. Not only that, but he should be allowed to conduct his campaign in a normal way. Then a case, criminal if necessary, could be taken against him in the ordinary courts. This is an unacceptable case in respect of which the Government should make strong representations. Ireland is very proud of its record on human rights. Where a man has been held in this way, we should use our political muscle to show we feel passionately about these rights being infringed.
I hope the Minister of State will not reply by giving some sort of mealy-mouthed expression of concern. I hope he will reply by saying the Government is prepared to make a meaningful protest either through diplomatic channels or through the United Nations, to ensure this man is released so that he can go about his diplomatic duties without being oppressed by the Mugabe regime.
I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Senator Ross, for allowing me to share in this debate. Perhaps the Leas-Chathaoirleach would indicate to me to leave some time for my colleague, Senator Henry, because I am inclined to run on.
I had the opportunity of meeting Mr. Bennett on 21 May 2003. He told us that the European countries, particularly Ireland, could be of considerable help in the disastrous situation in Zimbabwe through using the fact that we were signatories to various human rights protocols and so on. Senator Ross has made an excellent case and I do not propose to repeat it. However, I spoke this afternoon to Mr. Hanley, the person who briefed all three of us, and he gave me some up-to-date news. He spoke last week to Mr. Bennett's wife and gave me some information about the terms of his imprisonment.
He is allowed one visit every two weeks for half an hour. It is a two-hour drive for his wife, and he is in a cell with 11 other people. A guard has taken a particular dislike to him and if any of Mr. Bennett's cell mates show any degree of friendship towards him, they are punished as well. As Senator Ross has said, there is a whole series of grounds under which Ireland can appeal in terms of human rights and legal protocols, for example, the whole question of lack of impartiality and the fact it was a star chamber. The Minister could make such an argument not within a eurocentric framework. It might be useful for him to know that the African Commission on Human and People's Rights found in a similar case that regardless of the character of the individual members of such tribunals, its composition alone creates the appearance of an actual lack of impartiality. That is a view from within Africa. The matter is all the more urgent because of the fact Mr. Mugabe has called an election.
We know the way in which Mr. Mugabe has actually vitiated election processes in the past. He has made a career of doing so. People are intimidated and excluded, there is impersonation, mass violence and fraud of every type. That is known inside. People such as Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, will say this. I have had the opportunity to meet him as well. International observers say it too; we know it is a completely corrupt process and yet the opposition parties have decided to stand. I was told this afternoon that Mr. Bennett has also decided to stand, very courageously, for a seat in this election. It is important, in a democratic sense, that a member of parliament should be allowed to take to the hustings, in particular because it was a star chamber comprising as it did, five members, three of them from the government party. What other finding could one expect?
The whole outcome of this case is wrong. It is important that this man is allowed to get out and to campaign in the election. I have been asked to point out that a campaign of letter-writing is about to get under way. All Deputies and Senators will be contacted by the group supporting Mr. Bennett, with the assistance of Amnesty International. They will be trying to campaign to ensure that he has an opportunity to stand in the election and is released from jail, as would be appropriate. In this House I once described Mr. Mugabe as a dictator. I had to withdraw the phrase as it was an insult to a Head of State. I would welcome further opportunities for so insulting him.
Senator Ross was, in his normal way, very delicate about the rights of parliamentarians and so on. Some of them are pretty robust. I remember when Bernadette Devlin took a wallop at Reginald Maudling. I do not think that there was any sanction against her at all. It was regrettable and I was rather horrified by the incident, but she certainly was not put in jail for 15 months by a star chamber of one of the most corrupt politicians in a pretty corrupt continent.
I thank Senator Ross for sharing his time. This is a very serious case. Mr. Bennett has been subjected to the most terrible conditions in prison and has lost a couple of stone in weight. The question of whether he has contracted tuberculosis remains to be seen. We must object strongly on this aspect of the case, not just from Mr. Bennett's point of view, but also from the point of view of all those held in prisons in Zimbabwe. They are held in truly dreadful conditions. We have made similar sorts of pleas before for the rights of prisoners in other African countries.
Many people in Zimbabwe, some of whom are holders of Irish passports, are being oppressed by the authorities there. People who hold Irish passports have contacted me. They have been told to give up their Irish passports for a Zimbabwean passport or to leave the country. If one has worked there all one's life and has a pension paid by the state, then it is impossible to come back to Ireland and live on that money. To my great relief, the Department of Foreign Affairs told me that one cannot deny one's Irish nationality. If someone takes it away, then it will be given back again. This should be better publicised. It would be a cause of relief and comfort to many people in a country such as Zimbabwe.
I look with horror at the suggestions by the British Conservative Party that there should be a quota of asylum seekers. How can there possibly be a quota of asylum seekers when one does not know what sort of disruption there might be in some part of the world? Sometimes, a country may unexpectedly have to take in people from some part of the world. I suggest that this is the case in Zimbabwe. We should be in a position to take in people from that country and I do not just mean those Europeans who went out there. I am also referring to any of those black Zimbabweans who have had the courage to stand up to the present regime and who may need sanctuary in the future.
I welcome this opportunity to address Members on the case of Mr. Roy Bennett, the MDC Member of Parliament for Chimanimani in the Zimbabwean Parliament. Our Government has been closely following this case and shares many of the concerns expressed on the manner in which Mr. Bennett has been treated and the handling of the matter by the Zimbabwean Parliament. There is no doubt that some of the procedures employed in the establishment of the committee of privileges of the Zimbabwean Parliament, which heard Mr. Bennett's case and which subsequently sentenced him to 12 months imprisonment with labour, are open to question. Following the incident in the Zimbabwean Parliament on 18 May 2004, where Mr. Bennett shoved the Zimbabwean Minister for Justice to the floor, it is difficult to conclude in any objective way that he received a fair hearing. The same situation prevailed in our Parliament back in the 1920s. Parliament was suspended for a week and the rules of conduct were written. In 1981, there was another incident which had a genealogical connection with the previous incident and the rules were amended and tightened up. Therefore there are historic connotations, but not of the same gravity as the situation in Zimbabwe.
While I do not wish to condone these actions, which resulted in Mr. Bennett's imprisonment, it is clear that the sentence imposed was politically motivated and wholly disproportionate to the offence committed. I understand there is no precedent for the Zimbabwean Parliament to sentence one of its members to imprisonment in this way, even though similar events have occurred in that legislature in the past. Indeed, the severity of the sentence is unprecedented internationally. As a Member of this Parliament for 23 years, I cannot understand how any parliament or any of its committees would have the power to imprison anyone.
In this country, the Judiciary is completely separate from the Legislature, which is completely separate from Government. It is critically important that that would be the position in any country where democracy prevails.
The Irish Embassy in South Africa, which is accredited to Zimbabwe, has been closely following this particular case. Mr. Bennett is not an Irish citizen and, accordingly, we have no consular standing in the matter.
We may consider that important point, which has connotations for people who want to claim citizenship in this country. The embassy in South Africa has not received any approaches from the Bennett family to intervene on Mr. Bennett's behalf. Our ambassador in South Africa is visiting Zimbabwe this week and will raise Mr. Bennett's case, including with party colleagues of Mr. Bennett from the Movement for Democratic Change. We have also been active in urging EU ambassadors in Harare to monitor Mr. Bennett's case, with a view to the EU intervening on his behalf and on behalf of other members of the opposition in Zimbabwe who have been unfairly imprisoned. Mr. Bennett's treatment needs to be seen as part of an overall pattern of harassment, intimidation and violence which opposition politicians and supporters have faced in Zimbabwe for some years. The documented incidents of violence and intimidation directed against Mr. Bennett and his family are all too indicative of the repressive atmosphere which prevails in Zimbabwe. The human rights situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated since EU sanctions, targeted against the ruling elite, were imposed in February 2003. These sanctions will, in the absence of any improvement, be renewed later this month for a further year. Mr. Bennett has now been nominated to stand again as a MDC candidate in the general election in Zimbabwe, which has been called for 31 March next. This election will represent an important watershed for Zimbabwe and for testing whether there is any real willingness on the part of the Mugabe Government to implement political reforms and work to improve the situation in Zimbabwe on democracy, human rights and respect for the rule of law. The Government also welcomes the fact that the MDC, despite the many obstacles which it faces, has now chosen to participate in these elections. The Southern Africa Development Community, of which Zimbabwe is a member, has recently adopted important guidelines on holding democratic elections. The Zimbabwean Government initially committed itself to comply with these guidelines but has thus far demonstrated little intent to introduce the necessary changes to guarantee a free and fair election. Our Government urges full compliance by Zimbabwe with these guidelines if there is to be any prospect of the elections taking place under internationally acceptable standards. Ireland also calls upon the members of SADC to use their influence with the Zimbabwean Government in this regard.
Along with our EU partners, Ireland will continue to press for removal of repressive legislation and greater respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe. In the meantime, the Government will continue to follow closely the case of Mr. Bennett and other members of the opposition who have been unfairly imprisoned in Zimbabwe, in order to determine what effective intervention the EU might make on their behalf.
He said that the Irish ambassador in South Africa would raise Mr. Bennett's case with party colleagues of Mr. Bennett in the Movement for Democratic Change.
I do not want the Minister of State to raise the matter with his own colleagues as we know how they will feel. Can the Minister of State assure me the Minister for Foreign Affairs will raise the matter with his opposite number in Zimbabwe, Mr. Mugabe and his colleagues?
I assure the Senator that I will discuss the matter with the Minister for Foreign Affairs who is currently in the United States of America to carry out very important work. He will not be back until later in the week. A General Affairs and External Relations Council will soon take place at which we will discuss what strategy can be formulated to raise the issue with the Government of Zimbabwe through the European Union. I would have no difficulty whatsoever with sending a direct message to Mr. Mugabe to call on him to recognise the rights of elected people, release Mr. Bennett from prison, allow him to stand for election and provide open, free and fair elections to the people of his country. That is what they deserve and expect. I will discuss the matter and if it accords with proper diplomatic communication forms, I will be only too delighted to execute it.
The Minister of State is now disappointing me. I was encouraged by what he said previously but have now been given the impression that he is waffling. Will the Minister of State please give me an assurance that this matter will be raised by a representative of the Irish Government with the Government of Zimbabwe?