'I Was Detained in Zimbabwe'

Nearly three weeks have passed since Zimbabweans went to the polls to choose their president, and still no winner has been announced. Projections from an independent monitoring group indicate that incumbent Robert Mugabe lost to challenger Morgan Tsvangirai, but with the authoritarian leader refusing to concede defeat, the country remains in a state of tension and uncertainty. Dileepan Sivapathasundaram, an American with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), was working in Zimbabwe in the lead-up to the election. When he tried to leave the country April 3, he was arrested and interrogated by Zimbabwean authorities; he was released just last Wednesday, after six days of detention. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Barrett Sheridan about his ordeal and the situation in Zimbabwe. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did you go to Zimbabwe, and what did you hope to accomplish there?
Dileepan Sivapathasundaram:
I've been going to Zimbabwe routinely over the last year and a half, two years. This last trip in particular was the culmination of our work with local civic groups in the country. In particular, we looked to strengthening their capacity in monitoring the elections, which is work that NDI does with other groups in 70 countries around the world.

So you were there in a training capacity?
Primarily. Training and planning. Sort of helping these groups organize themselves around how to monitor the elections, what to look for--both during the election and, more importantly, actually, the pre-election environment.

And the goal was for them to spot any irregularities or tampering.
A lot of it is instilling confidence in the electoral process. Having an observer around the polling stations provides a level of support and comfort for voters on Election Day. Observers also look at the counting and tabulation that occurs on voting day, as well.

Did the groups you worked with report any harassment or intimidation?
The local civic groups we worked with have a number of different reports they've released. According to these civic groups, the election did come across peacefully, with limited incidences of violence. But what is important to note is the pre-election environment left a lot to be desired, according to these civic groups.

How so?
There are two or three main issues. For example, the voter's roll had not been updated in an appropriate or effective manner, so these civic groups were concerned with whether everyone who was registered to vote actually appeared on the rolls. Secondly, some civic groups were concerned about whether there was free and fair access to the media for all political parties. And third, [there were problems with] the ability of the citizens to associate and assemble freely in accordance with Zimbabwean law and international standards.

In the past, Mugabe has been accused of using food aid to buy votes. Was election-rigging not so overt this time around?
That was an issue. Food aid was potentially used by leaders or village heads to engage in what they term "vote-buying" and may have had an impact on how citizens then voted.

What was your sense while you were there? Did you sense a widespread attempt to influence voting?
NDI was not there to monitor the elections; our main purpose and role there was to assist the civic groups in doing that work. In speaking to these groups, I think their sense was that there were definitely issues that didn't provide for a level playing field. Were there things that were done well? Definitely, and I think those are borne out by their statements and reports. But there were definitely issues, especially ones in the pre-election environment.

You were detained when trying to leave the country.
I was detained at Harare International Airport. Our work was done, I was trying to leave the country and fly back to Johannesburg, [South Africa] roughly five days after the election. I was interrogated by Zimbabwean authorities for over 22 hours, and then detained in the country for five days thereafter.

Were you treated harshly?
While my person or property were not harmed in any way, and that was made clear to me upfront by the authorities, what I would say is that the interrogation and detention was unlawful, both in regards to Zimbabwean law but also in terms of regional and international standards. There were never any charges brought against me, there was never any explanation as to why I was being detained or interrogated.

What kind of information did they want from you?
The authorities were asking questions about the local civic groups that NDI and myself in particular were working with. They wanted to get a sense of what these groups were engaged in, and how it related to the elections.

Do you think this was an attempt to intimidate you and the groups you worked with?
Yes, and I think for the most part the interrogation was opportunistic. They happened to catch me and detain me while I was leaving the country. I think the government was caught by surprise by the initial projections from independent monitors in the country, and were caught flat-footed by it. I think they were trying to understand how it was possible for independent civic groups to be able to provide projections of the results, which is something that hasn't happened in Zimbabwe or anywhere else on the continent.

It's been weeks since the election, and still no results have been announced. What will happen?
I think it's hard to forecast what will happen in Zimbabwe. What's important to stress is that the Zimbabwean people have gone to the polls now in the last few elections, which the opposition and civic groups have considered less than free and fair. That notwithstanding, the citizens have continued to abide by the rule of law, and to go to the polling booth and vote and express their free will as much as possible.

Do you think the opposition won outright?
[According to the] independent monitoring groups, Mugabe did not come in first place. Whether or not the lead opposition candidate won the election outright or whether there's a need for a runoff is still in the margin of error, based on their projections and calculations. That much is known so far, and I think that's caught the government by surprise.

If Mugabe clings to power despite losing the election, will the military and his political supporters still stand behind him?
I think it's hard to say, and I can't necessarily comment on what all Zimbabwean people think or what the government or military think. But because of the work of these civic groups in releasing projections, there's some sense of what the elections results probably looked like, and I think the government and the electoral commission need to respect what has happened.

Why were the election monitors so effective this time around, but not before?
Domestic observation of elections is not an easy task. That's why groups like NDI exist, so we can draw on comparative expertise from groups in Peru, the Philippines and other countries in the region and on the continent. It takes time over years to develop the capacity to be able to observe elections and provide some input into the political process. I think the success of the groups in Zimbabwe speaks to the capacity of these groups and the commitment on the part of these people in Zimbabwe who are involved in this effort to make sure by whatever means possible that their will on Election Day is respected.