ACT News

Zimbabwe ambassador to Australia Jacqueline Zwambila defects

Zimbabwe's ambassador to Australia has lashed out at the regime of President Robert Mugabe and is seeking a protection visa so she can stay in Australia.

Ambassador Jacqueline Zwambila has asked the Australian government for asylum because she fears for her safety if she returns to Zimbabwe.

With four days remaining as ambassador she has moved out of her residence, but has no intention of using the business class plane ticket given to her by her government to fly back home on Tuesday.

''I don't feel safe about returning to Zimbabwe at all,'' she said.

Ms Zwambila will rely on a bridging visa after her diplomatic status is cancelled and a small number of family members who have been with her in Australia also hope to gain protection under her application.

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One treasured item she took with her from the residence when she moved out on Friday was a framed graduate diploma in international relations from the Australian National University, which she received two weeks earlier.

For a short time before her departure the diploma hung in the hallway opposite an official portrait of Mr Mugabe.

That portrait, along with furniture owned by the embassy, has been left behind at the empty residence in Red Hill.

Ms Zwambila, politically aligned to Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, was recalled from her post without being offered another job after Mugabe's Zanu-PF party controversially won the country's July 31 general election.

Mr Mugabe, 89, won power for the next five years when he finished with 61 per cent of the vote compared to MDC's 39 per cent amid claims of intimidation and tampering with electoral rolls and the allegation up to one million voters were turned away from polling places.

Mr Mugabe called on his opponents to accept defeat or commit suicide.

I don't feel safe about returning to Zimbabwe at all.

"But I tell them even dogs will not sniff at their flesh if they choose to die that way," was the punch line he gave The New York Times.

Following the poll, Australia's foreign minister at the time, Bob Carr, called for the election to be re-run and said doubts about the election being free and fair meant Australia would not lift existing travel bans and financial sanctions against 33 individuals and one Zimbabwean entity.

The Australian government had offered reduced sanctions as an incentive for fair elections.

Sitting in her residence before she moved out, Ms Zwambila said Mr Mugabe and Zanu-PF had stolen the election and had followed up by increasing arrests of MDC supporters on trumped up charges.

She feared indefinite custody if she returned. The ambassador said among other allegations she has been threatened with arrest in Zimbabwe because a court found she had not paid $2700 to a tradesman who worked on the house she owns there. She denied owing the money.

Ms Zwambila said her $150,000 house in Zimbabwe would be auctioned against her will to pay the bill.

Amnesty International highlighted how policing had become politicised when more than 20 of Ms Zwambila's fellow party members were arrested and spent a year or more in custody for the alleged murder of a police officer before being acquitted. One of them, Rebecca Mafikeni, 29, died in custody in August after spending two years in remand awaiting trial. It was the same month the election result was announced.

Ms Zwambila said when she heard about Mr Mugabe's victory she saw ''doom, a black cloud''.

''I knew then it was the end of my term.''

Claims in 2010 she stripped naked during a fit of rage in front of staff in Canberra were brought to a head in the Australian legal system during a defamation case which finally concluded in the ACT Supreme Court last week.

A Canberra judge struck out the defence offered by freelance journalist Panganai Reason Wafawarova, who argued his report was true and in the public interest.

Zimbabwean state-run newspaper The Herald had published the claims made about the ambassador and The Australian also ran Wafawarova's claims days later. An incensed Ms Zwambila launched a lawsuit against The Australian's publisher, News Limited, and Wafawarova in 2011.

Court papers say Wafawarova was motivated out of malice as an ''agent

of the Mugabe regime''. She reached a confidential settlement with The Australian in March 2011.

Wafawarova tried to defend his reporting, arguing the allegations were true, an opinion, fair comment and in the public interest.

The case stalled after Wafawarova repeatedly flouted court orders by failing to provide documents relevant to the case.

A hearing in April will decide the amount Wafawarova must pay the ambassador.

Anybody who types her name into Google is still flooded with reports of the stripping allegation but as she packed her things Ms Zwambila said: ''They've failed to destroy me and my integrity remains intact.''

It was her opposition to Mr Mugabe that essentially brought her to Canberra in 2010. The Movement for Democratic Change won the bloody 2008 election but a power-sharing agreement was struck after Mr Mugabe refused to stand down.

As a consequence of the agreement, a handful of MDC-aligned diplomats were sent to Australia, Germany, Sudan, Nigeria and Senegal and at least three have been recalled since the election.

Ms Zwambila plans to return to activism which she hopes she can do from abroad: ''The future looks bleak under this government,'' she said.

The ambassador's request for protection and public statement that the Zimbabwe election was stolen ends a sunny period for Australia-Zimbabwe relations.

During her four years as ambassador Australia became a significant financial contributor to Zimbabwe aid and development.

From 2005-06 to 2007-08, Zimbabwe received $5.6 million of Australian funds, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Since the start of 2009 Zimbabwe has received more than $177 million.

The ambassador's criticism of the Mugabe regime comes as the Abbott Government reviews foreign expenditure and plans to cut $4.5 billion in the projected increase of aid and development spending between now and 2016-17.

Since the Coalition took government in September, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has not updated Australia's stance towards Zimbabwe. The Coalition took a hard line under former prime minister John Howard who successfully lobbied for Zimbabwe to be excluded from the Commonwealth for human rights abuses, called off a cricket tour in 2007 and labelled Mr Mugabe a ''grubby dictator'' - which probably led to Mr Howard being spurned for the top job at the International Cricket Council later in life.

Ms Bishop has frontline experience in Zimbabwe. In 2000 and 2002, as a federal MP, Ms Bishop returned from Zimbabwe with stories of violence and intimidation after she travelled there as part of a Commonwealth observer team. ''There was no freedom from fear,'' she said then.

More recently the United Nations World Food Program has said Zimbabwe faces the worst famine since 2009 with 2.2 million people requiring food aid.

In a Christmas message to supporters Mr Tsvangirai said Zimbabwe was returning to the chaos of 2008, citing worsening power shortages and a liquidity crunch.

''Hunger is stalking the nation while food and farming inputs are being distributed selectively and continue to be used as a political weapon,'' he wrote.

Ms Zwambila's father was an entrepreneur who started as a bookkeeper and ended up building supermarkets and cocktail bars. She said it was a time when the highest an African could rise in society was to sell groceries, or become a teacher.

Growing up, she attended an elite multinational school, a place where African students were excluded from sports such as netball.

It was a lonely time. There was no protection from racist teachers yet she did not have the option of running away. She had to stay to receive an education her parents were working hard to pay for. Ms Zwambila became a political activist, built her own public relations business and is now a grandmother.

''I've had to fight the whole system,'' she said when interviewed by Fairfax Media last year.

''I'm a fighter.''

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