After the whistleblower group Wikileaks released Afghan war documents identifying local informants, its founder Julian Assange said in an interview with the Today Show that if American sympathizers were targeted in the divestment’s wake it would constitute his own collateral damage: “If we had, in fact, made that mistake then of course that would be something we would take very seriously.”
The subject of my editorial for today’s Guardian, we’ll see how seriously Mr. Assange takes murder in the coming days, as an African dictator moves to execute his leading democratic critic.
When Wikileaks whistleblowers began circulating in April footage of a 2007 Iraq war incursion in which U.S. military personnel unwittingly killed two war correspondents and a handful of civilians, the international community was aghast at the apparent murder. With sobering questions on the material’s full context largely falling on deaf ears, the group was free to editorialize the scene as it pleased: Collateral murder.
But now, with the recent release of sensitive diplomatic cables, Wikileaks may have committed its own collateral murder, upending the precarious balance of power in a fragile African state and signing the death warrant of its pro-Western premier.
Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai’s call to public service has been a tortured one, punctuated by death and indignity.
After Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential contest—featuring incumbent Mugabe, Tsvangirai and independent Simba Makoni—failed to award any any candidate with the majority necessary to claim victory, the election defaulted to a run-off between the two highest vote-getters, Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
Following intense negotiations, the two parties agreed in February 2009 to a coalition government in which Mugabe would remain head of state—a post he had held uninterrupted for thirty years—and Tsvangirai would assume the premiership. Not one month later, Tsvangirai and his wife were involved in a suspicious collision with a lorry. Though the prime minister survived, his wife for thirty-one years died.
With little regard for the nuances and subtlety of soft international diplomacy, Wikileaks released last week a classified U.S. State Department cable relating a 2009 meeting between Tsvangirai and American and European ambassadors, whose countries imposed travel sanctions and asset freezes on Mugabe and his top political lieutenants on the eve of Zimbabwe’s 2002 presidential election.
Though Western sanctions don’t prohibit foreign trade and investment or affect international aid—it’s said that Zimbabwe’s 2009 cholera epidemic topped 100,000 cases, registering some 4,300 deaths—the Mugabe administration effectively characterized the sanctions as an affront to the common Zimbabwean, further crippling the nation’s already hobbled economy. (Zimbabwe’s national unemployment figure hovers somewhere near ninety percent.)
Publicly, Tsvangirai opposed the measures out of political necessity. In private conversations with Western diplomats, however, the ascendant Tsvangirai praised its utility in forcing Mr. Mugabe’s hand in the new unity government.
Now, in the wake of Wikileaks’ divestment, one of the men targeted by US and EU travel and asset freezes, Mugabe’s appointed attorney general, has launched a probe to investigate Tsvangirai’s involvement in sustained Western sanctions. If found guilty, Tsvangirai will face the death penalty.
And so whereas Mugabe’s strong-arming, torture and assassination attempts have failed, the insufferable Wikileaks may have yet succeeded, offering the despot the critical ammunition to finally snuff out his most effective critic. Twenty years of sacrifice and suffering by Tsvangirai all for naught, as Wikileaks moves from one collateral murder to the next in the name of transparency.