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Harvard Rallies Behind Accused Nieman Fellow

Zimbabwe officials tortured reporter for article

By Jenny E. Heller, Crimson Staff Writer

Mark Chavunduka, a journalist studying as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard for the year, must return to his native Zimbabwe today to stand trial and face up to seven years in prison.

Chavunduka and his colleague, Ray Choto, were illegally arrested by the members of the Zimbabwean military in January after Choto wrote an article for The Zimbabwe Standard about an attempted coup within the Zimbabwe National Army to overthrow the government. Chavunduka is the editor of the paper.

After their arrest, the two say they were tortured by members of the military who applied electric shocks to all parts of their bodies and beaten with batons and fists. Their heads were wrapped in plastic bags and then put in water until they began suffocating.

Chavunduka was released after six days in captivity, and went to England for medical treatment. Earlier this year, he was chosen to be one of the 24 Nieman Fellows--mid-career journalists from across the world who study at Harvard for a year--and left Zimbabwe on the condition that he return for trial.

Chavunduka had been hoping that the Zimbabwe Supreme Court would rule the law under which he was arrested unconstitutional and prevent the trial.

But that decision has not yet come, and so Chavunduka's trial will likely go forward beginning Oct. 4.

He and Choto, both currently on bail, have been charged under an antiquated law that the country's parliament has voted to repeal. They were, according to the charge, "publishing information likely to cause public alarm and despondency."

The Nieman fellows asked Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine to send a letter to Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe protesting Chavunduka's treatment, according to Nieman Foundation Curator Bill Kovach.

"I'm relatively sure [Rudenstine is] going to write a letter," said Kovach, who spoke with Rudenstine yesterday.

Kovach and the fellows sent letters of their own to Mugabe over a week ago. Now they are spreading news of their colleague's case to papers around the globe and hoping the media attention will guarantee a fairer trial.

"This is just to let the actors in the trial understand that there is international attention in this case," Kovach said. "That's all we can do at this point."

There will be international observers in the courtroom--many at the request of the foundation and many former Nieman fellows.

For example, Jorrilyn Eddings, who was a Nieman in 1985, will travel from South Africa on behalf of the Freedom Forum, a human rights group, to sit in on the trial.

Kovach called these observers "powerful tools."

Last week Kovach traveled to New York in an attempt to meet with Mugabe, who was at the United Nations. But Mugabe made his visit ahead of schedule, thwarting Kovach's attempt.

Carol Eisenberg, a Nieman fellow and reporter with Newsday, said the fellows will keep in contact with Chavunduka.

"It is not only an important press freedom case," she said. "All of us appreciate the courage that Mark has shown under severe duress."

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