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EDITIONS
Saturday, 1 June, 2002, 12:57 GMT 13:57 UK
Long hours in a Harare jail
Andrew Meldrum, Collin Chiwanza and Lloyd Mudiwa
Meldrum (left): Jailed for factual error

My stomach lurched as I descended the stairs to the Harare jail cells. It was dark and cold.

"Take off your shoes and socks, your belt and watch," ordered the guard.

He told me I was only allowed one top item of clothing so I would have to choose between my shirt and sweater.

All prisoners must be barefoot in the cells of Harare Central Charge Office where I was held.

Daily News printing press after a bomb attack in 2001
The independent press has been a target in Zimbabwe
For the next 33 hours the world was divided into two categories - those with shoes walked with confidence and could come and go as they pleased; those without shoes were locked in jail and could not go anywhere.

I was barefoot and in jail.

I was arrested for writing an article in the UK's Guardian newspaper on political violence against Zimbabwe's opposition, after Robert Mugabe's disputed re-election as president in March.

I wrote that one of those opposition supporters killed in the wave of retribution was a woman who had been beheaded.

It turned out that the woman had not been beheaded.


I went to the toilet and cringed as my feet stuck to the sticky floor

And, under Zimbabwe's new Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, to make a factual error is to commit a crime, punishable by a fine of up to 100,000 Zimbabwe dollars ($1,830) or up to two years in jail.

Even though I had signed a "warned and cautioned" statement, police decided that I should be held in jail.

Because I was arrested on a holiday, Workers' Day, I was incarcerated overnight until I could appear in court.

My lawyer tried valiantly to get me freed, but as it was a holiday all the officials who could order my release were unavailable.

Blanket bugs

As I entered the dank cells - barefoot and discouraged - I heard "Psst. Pssst. Come over here!"


We became giddy when we climbed the stairs and saw blue sky through a window.

It was Collin Chiwanza, one of two Zimbabwean journalists who had been arrested the day before.

Collin and Lloyd Mudiwa, reporters for the Daily News, showed me the ropes in jail and we became fast friends.

They had a blanket to keep them warm and offered to share it. It was a filthy rag that reeked of urine.

Lloyd showed me bites he got from bugs in the blanket. I vowed NEVER to get near it.

But within about 15 minutes I stuck my cold feet into the blanket.

By that night I was snuggling under it for warmth.

'Let me out!'

Outgoing and bubbly by nature, Collin kept us entertained by telling us stories about his childhood and school days.

He told us about his first girlfriend and his second, his first job as a schoolteacher and how he became a journalist.

He told us about his wife and his baby daughter. Lloyd and I also told stories and we made silly jokes. Our camaraderie really helped to pass the time and lifted our spirits.

Andrew Meldrum
Andrew Meldrum: One of 12 journalists arrested in 10 weeks
Night was the most difficult time. It was cold and I could not sleep.

I went to the toilet and cringed as my feet stuck to the sticky floor.

The walls, the dark and the stench made me claustrophobic. I wanted to shout: "Let me out!"

But I pulled myself together, realising I could easily drive myself crazy, but it would not help the situation.

I just had to endure it. I clambered back under the blanket next to Collin and Lloyd and tried to sleep.

In the morning the guards told us to come with them.

We excitedly pulled on our socks, shoes and clothes.

We became giddy when we climbed the stairs and saw blue sky through a window.

But our happiness was dashed when we arrived at the magistrates' court and were taken to the basement cells.

We each had to wear a single handcuff and with nearly 30 other prisoners we were ordered on to a narrow, steep staircase.

Crackdown

The door behind us was locked and so was the door at the bottom of the stairs, which led to the courtroom.

We waited there for two hours.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
Mr Mugabe signed a new media law in March
Eventually we appeared in court. The charges against Collin were dropped as he had not written a single word of the story in question.

Lloyd and I were released on free bail pending trial.

Since then I have appeared in court twice for remand hearings.

Each time I am thankful to be able to walk into the courtroom freely, through the front door and in clean clothes.

I look at the door leading back to the cramped, filthy prisoners' staircase and I pray I never have to go back there.

I do not feel alone. In the 10 weeks since the Mugabe government's new press act became law, 12 journalists have been arrested.

It is a crackdown on the independent and critical press.

Andrew Meldrum is the UK Guardian newspaper's correspondent in Zimbabwe.


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See also:

31 May 02 | Africa
08 May 02 | Africa
30 May 02 | Africa
02 May 02 | Africa
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