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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 118

Senator MOORE (8:02 PM) —I wish to speak tonight about the ongoing situation in Zimbabwe. I particularly want to put on record the concerns that so many of us across the world have for a gentleman called Roy Bennett. Mr Bennett, with whom I was very fortunate to meet several years ago in Queensland, is an elected member of the Zimbabwean parliament. However, on 18 May last year his circumstances changed dramatically. Even though Mr Bennett, his family and his supporters were well used to acts of violence and harassment and direct attacks on himself and his family, on that day, whilst serving as a member of parliament, a horrific change in his life occurred. I will quote from the strangely named Zimbabwe Independent of 10 December. It is very difficult to find anything independent in Zimbabwe. The article reads:

A debate in parliament on the issue of stock theft on May 18—

not an issue we debate very often in this parliament, I am pleased to say—

started it all for Mr Bennett. Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa accused Bennett’s ancestors of being “thieves and murderers” to justify the government’s seizure of his Charleswood Estate.

These attacks on the property of white farmers in Zimbabwe have been going on for a long time. They are not an issue of black and white; they are clearly an issue of politics. The article goes on:

He said Bennett would never be allowed to set foot on his property again.

An incensed Bennett charged at Chinamasa and floored him. Anti-Corruption and Monopolies Minister Didymus Mutasa joined the scuffle in support of Chinamasa but also landed on the floor.

“I kicked him hard,” Mutasa later said.

Bennett was found guilty by the special privileges committee.

It is a bit different from the special privileges committees that operate in this place. The article continues:

It recommended that he be sentenced to one-year imprisonment.

It was actually 15 months imprisonment, but three months were put aside. It goes on:

Zanu PF’s—

that is, the government’s—

majority in parliament carried the day and the House adopted the recommendation.

This was not a legal action; it was an action of the house of parliament. Mr Bennett attempted to make a formal apology to the house—something we have seen in this place on many occasions. The majority government decided not to accept that apology. Mr Bennett was not kicked out of the house for a certain period of time for poor behaviour, as happens sometimes in the Australian parliaments; he was taken to prison. All his belongings were taken from him and he was put in a crowded central prison. Mr Bennett promised to return and complete the journey to freedom later with others as he headed for—and I am not even going to attempt to pronounce the name—a prison where hard-core criminals are detained. Mr Bennett only stayed there for a period of time before he was transferred four hours journey away from the centre of Harare, the capital. So he is now in a full security prison working as a detainee and, although appeals are in progress, he is now facing a full 12-month sentence for something that happened on the floor of parliament.

I do not think anyone here can really understand that. The problem is that very few people in this country even know about it, because—as I have said before in this place—the access to information about Zimbabwe is severely limited. It is very difficult to get media coverage and it is very difficult even to ask questions about what is going on. I truly believe that if people understood that this is the kind of thing that can happen to elected representatives, they would share our shock and dismay and they would also be concerned about Mr Bennett’s family, who are now without their father, trying to survive in a situation of continuing daily harassment, fear and attacks.

There are significant links between Zimbabwe and Australia. Most of us who attend citizenship ceremonies regularly find Zimbabwean people who have been able to leave the country. It is a difficult choice for anyone to leave their home and their possessions to restart. But some people who have been fortunate enough to come to Australia and have fulfilled the requirements of citizenship in this country and made the choice to become Australian citizens have great links with their homeland through email. I do not know what we would do without access to email. It allows the free interaction of information, and it is where we find out what is happening to other families and about the attacks on property and the vicious attacks on the Zimbabwean people. We find out about those through email and through people talking amongst themselves.

I do wish to make a clear statement this evening to support Minister Downer’s public statements in support of Roy Bennett and also the need for an ongoing relationship with Zimbabwe.

Amnesty International, in support of the process for the free Roy Bennett campaign—which was started by family members and members of the MDC, which is the major opposition party in Zimbabwe—have put out processes across the world, mainly through the Internet again, getting people to sign petitions, lobby governments, talk to politicians and find out exactly what can be done as community people who want justice and freedom and who can see that the process of harassment is ensuring that there will not be any kind of free democratic process in that country.

It is strange to stand in our parliamentary system and hear what has happened to a comrade, to a person who was going about their duty in their parliament house. It is difficult to understand the quickness and viciousness of the process of ‘justice’ which has destroyed a family and put a representative of the people behind bars. There is an immediate link between this and the fact that the next round of elections in Zimbabwe is scheduled for 31 March this year. We hear from people living in various sections of Zimbabwe that the viciousness and ferocity of the attacks build up as the ballot date draws nearer. In a clear attempt to silence people, to force people not to make open decisions about their vote and how to use it, there is alleged to be a systematic attack on people who do not favour the current government.

In the last round of elections, we had an open invitation—and it did change as the date drew closer in that last round—to various members and independent observers to visit Zimbabwe and scrutinise the election process. When those people came back, including Kevin Rudd who is the shadow minister for foreign affairs in the lower house, they actually made statements critical of the processes in Zimbabwe. Now, as we face the 2005 elections, the government is determined that that kind of openness will not occur this time. Because of outside interference there will not be the opportunity, particularly for the media, to actually cover the Zimbabwean elections. This has put the people in greater danger and increased the fear in the community.

We are asking that people throughout our communities and politicians from all sides of parliament use every effort to pressure the Zimbabwean government. We know it is difficult because in fact, really, there is very little that can be done. But we have to ensure that the message is out there. For people like Roy Bennett, who will be a candidate in the 31 March elections, it is very difficult to run a campaign from inside a prison. It is interesting that Mr Bennett’s imprisonment covers the full election period until after 31 March. But Mr Bennett will be a candidate. His popularity is very strong in his area. His own supporters have been trying to visit him in prison and have been standing outside saying, ‘Free Roy Bennett,’ which has some kind of symbolic nature.

We need to keep that cry out there so that our government will be able to share in the international call for free and open elections. We also have questions about the role of our embassy, which I believe is looking at downsizing and changing its location. We are told that that is for security reasons in the area, and we understand that. There are serious concerns about security in Harare, but the message to the Zimbabwean people must continue to be that we are their friends and we are their supporters. People who talk to us say that they have strong links with our country, they value the relationship with Australia and the effort and work of our people in our embassy there have been lauded by people from across Africa, particularly in Zimbabwe. (Time expired)