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Senior Released After 5 Days in Zimbabwean Jail

Amar C. Bakshi '06 went to African country to research propaganda; authorities wouldn't let him out

By Daniel J. Hemel and Ndidi N. Menkiti, Crimson Staff Writerss

Zimbabwean officials detained Amar C. Bakshi ‘06 on espionage charges late last month after he visited the African country to conduct thesis research on political propaganda, the Leverett House senior said.

The increasingly autocratic regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe held the student for five days inside a cell that "reeked of feces," Bakshi said.

Bakshi, who hails from Washington D.C., said he boarded a British Airways jet to return to the United States on Dec. 30, but Zimbabwean authorities called him off the plane and would not let him leave the country.

Bakshi said that members of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization accused him of "spying and sabotage" and told him his Harvard connections were "just a cover."

According to Bakshi, Zimbabwean authorities threatened him by saying, "No one will know if you’re here....No one will know if you’re not here."

But Bakshi managed to place a cell phone call from a bathroom stall to a Zimbabwean journalist, who then alerted the U.S. embassy.

The Leverett House assistant senior tutor, Judy Murciano-Goroff, worked with U.S. embassy officials and Zimbabwean contacts to secure Bakshi's release.

Murciano-Goroff did not return several phone calls and e-mails seeking comment over the past two days. A spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, Angela Aggeler, said that federal law bars her from releasing information on individual American citizens.

A Zimbabwean embassy official in Washington initially called Bakshi’s story "very, very, very untrue," but he later declined to confirm or deny Bakshi’s account.

Bakshi said that Zimbabwean officers first threw him into a solitary cell and then moved him into a larger facility with 120 other detainees. He said the prisoners were not allowed to wear shoes, go outside, or use a proper restroom.

Although Bakshi said that officials from the United States embassy in Harare brought him meals, he said the other detainees only received food every one or two days. He said that some of the other detainees had been held for over a week.

Bakshi’s parents, both of whom are doctors, were celebrating New Year’s in New York when they received a call from the U.S. embassy informing them that their son had been jailed in Zimbabwe.

"It was obviously very frightening," his mother, Gita Chopra Bakshi, said in a phone interview. "My reaction was...my God, what have they done to him?"

She said she and her husband flew to the Zimbabwean capital of Harare and, along with prominent Zimbabwean attorney Eric Matinenga, helped secure their son’s release.

Matinenga is also the lawyer for Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Bakshi, a joint social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator, had traveled to Zimbabwe over the summer to conduct interviews with Mugabe’s current spokesman, George Charamba, who is the permanent secretary of the Information Ministry. Bakshi also spoke to Charamba’s predecessor, Jonathan Moyo, who was expelled from Mugabe’s ruling party early last year.

Harvard College halted funding for student travel to Zimbabwe in 2004 but lifted that restriction this past October. Nonetheless, Bakshi used his own means to pay for the trip.

Even after his arrest, Bakshi said he does not believe Harvard should restrict student travel to Zimbabwe. "It’s a matter of your own personal maturity," Bakshi said, though he recommended that the University compile a list of contacts for students in the region.

"For me, it was not a miserable experience," Bakshi said of his detention. "I met the most inspiring people."

Bakshi said that Zimbabwean authorities cleared him of all charges.

Cabot House applied mathematics and economics concentrator Proud Dzambukira ‘07, a Zimbabwe native, was in Cambridge when he received a text message from Bakshi on the first night of his detention.

"This was the first time that someone that I know directly was detained in this manner," Dzambukira wrote in an e-mail. "One of the things that surprised me was that a student clearly doing academic work would attract this kind of scrutiny," he added.

According to Amnesty International’s 2005 report on Zimbabwe, the country’s police and intelligence forces "were implicated in numerous cases of torture, assault, and ill-treatment." The report said that "victims were primarily members of the political opposition and those perceived as critical of the government."

Bakshi recalled that one boy who was detained alongside him said, "Make sure when you write up your thesis, make sure that you write about us, about all the good things." But, the boy added, "Be sure to tell them how horrific this is too."

A press officer for the Zimbabwean embassy in Washington, Wilbert Gwashavanhu, said of Baskshi’s account, "This is created. This is very, very, very untrue."

After reading an article about Bakshi’s arrest on the website of the Zimbabwe Standard newspaper, Gwashavanhu said, "An article like this one is quite damaging."

Asked again, though, whether Bakshi’s story was accurate, Gwashavanhu replied, "I am an official at the embassy in the U.S. reading this on the Internet. Do you think I’m competent to answer this question?"

"We can’t conclusively say that the charge is not true because we haven’t—I didn’t have any official communication," he said.

Gwashavanhu referred further questions to Charamba, the Information Ministry chief whom Bakshi interviewed for his thesis. But Gwashavanhu declined to provide contact information for Charamba.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Ndidi N. Menkiti can be reached at menkiti@fas.harvard.edu.

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