The family of Itai Dzamara, a leading Zimbabwean anti-government activist abducted last week, have told VICE News they believe that the country's notorious security forces are behind the disappearance of the man described by rights groups as a "significant threat to Mugabe's regime."
On March 9, Dzamara, an outspoken government critic and protest leader, was kidnapped in broad daylight from a barber shop meters from his home in the Granville district of Harare by five unidentified men. The activist was having a shave at around 9:45 am when a truck pulled up with the men inside, three of whom got out and entered the shop, according to witnesses. Asking "are you Itai Dzamara?" they then said he was under arrest for stealing a cow, handcuffed him and pushed into the truck.
Ten days later, there has been no word as to Dzamara's whereabouts. His brother, Patson Dzamara, said that despite police "on the surface" appearing cooperative in the search, "they remain our foremost suspects in the case." The activist had been "brutalized and beaten" by the police several times in the past, he added.
Patson told VICE News that in a conversation with Itai a few days before his abduction, "he was really fired up. He actually said something along the lines of 'I think the regime is afraid of me and what we are doing.'"
Human rights groups, journalists and local commentators have all suggested that the abduction had heavy government involvement.
Dewa Mavhinga, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Southern Africa, described Dzamara as "a significant threat to Mugabe's regime." He told VICE News that he believed it was a high possibility the government was behind the activist's disappearance. Mugabe had an "effective monopoly on the use of instruments of violence by state agencies. It would be unprecedented that private individuals would be able to pull off such a crime," Mavhinga added.
The current political situation in Zimbabwe is finely balanced. Mugabe, fresh from celebrating his $1 million dollar 91st birthday party and faced with speculation over his fragility and possible successors, has been busily consolidating his power, purging some of the highest-ranking officials in his ZANU-PF party. After the relative calm of recent years, Dzamara's abduction appears to herald a regression to the authoritarianism with which Mugabe has maintained his grip on power for 28 years.
"It marks a return to repression ... to ZANU-PF's old ways," Mavhinga said.
Dzamara, a former journalist, is the leader of Occupy Africa Unity Square (AUS), a rare Harare-based protest group which has called for Mugabe's resignation, fresh elections, changes to the electoral system and police reform.
Although Dzamara's AUS group itself is relatively small, his strength lies in uniting a normally fragmented opposition. Although he is "above and beyond political affiliation" Human Rights Watch (HRW) told VICE News that "he had succeeded in bringing together many opposition groups, including the main opposition [party] the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai."
Despite being over ninety himself, since Mugabe took control of Zimbabwe the average life expectancy has decreased by three years to 58.8 for men and 60.8 for woman. GDP per capita has shrunk by an average of 1.2 percent a year since he took office in 1987.
At its worst point, Zimbabwean inflation was thought to have reached 80 billion percent, from 2008 to 2009. In 2007 on the streets of Harare you could be handed a 1 Zimbabwean dollar note, while the very next year paying for bread with a 10 trillion dollar note.
Worrying comparisons have been made between Dzamara's abduction and that of Jestina Mukoko in 2008. Mukoko, was head of the human rights NGO Zimbabwe Peace Project when she was abducted at 5am from her home by masked men.
Mukoko told VICE News that what followed was "intense physical and psychological torture." She recounted that "they beat the soles of my feet from mid morning to late evening, by the end of the day I couldn't recognize my feet."
Unidentified men forced her to kneel on gravel in a stress position for hours while they interrogated her, once asking "are you sure you know where your son is?"
She told VICE News she saw parallels between her abduction and that of Dzamara.
Mukoko said she believed that what eventually saved her was the international attention on her case, with leading world figures like then-UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, demanding her release. However in Dzamara's case, except for a few perfunctory statements of concern, the international and national response has been mild.
The European Union delegation to Zimbabwe released a meek 68-word statement, saying that it "counts" on the Zimbabwean government to do all it can to ascertain Dzarama's whereabouts and "safeguard his wellbeing and accord him the full protection of the law."
The EU has just conditionally agreed to grant the Zimbabwean government €234m ($250m) in aid, amid a thaw in relations which has seen the bloc rescind its sanctions again the country.
Vince Musewe, a local independent journalist, blamed the lack of local outcry on an indifference born of suffering. He told VICE News: "The sad thing is, you get used to it. There is so much fear, apathy and poverty, people are thinking about their next meal and nothing else."
Zimbabwean state media has also mounted an assault on Dzamara's character, with government mouthpieces branding him a "gay-cum-journalist," "attention seeker," and "conman." He has even been diagnosed by the Sunday Mail as having Munchausen's Syndrome.
The most common explanation put forward by Mugabe's press is that Dzamara faked his own abduction in an attempt to discredit the Zimbabwean government and generate opposition to ZANU-PF.
The state media has even gone so far as to draw parallels between Dzamara's abduction and the recent assassination of Kremlin critic and opposition leader Boris Nemstov in the heart of Moscow, which has been blamed by the Putin government on Chechen Islamists. The Sunday Mail laments that the criticism leveled at the Zimbabwean government by independent media and international organizations is "reminiscent" of suggestions of Kremlin involvement in Nemstov's death, "without paying proper attention to detail."
Patson Dzamara told VICE News that the past week has been like emotional torture for the family. Each of Dzamara's two children, a boy aged 7 and a girl aged 3, are asking "when dad is coming back," he said.
So far the only government response has been from Mugabe's notorious Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as "The Crocodile" for his ruthlessness and political cunning. Mnangagwa described Dzamara's abduction as a "barbaric act", and vowed to bring those responsible to justice.
From Mugabe himself — the current chair of the African Union — there has been silence.
Patson Dzamara concluded: "We all miss him, mum, dad, his wife, children and all of his siblings. His work, he still has a lot to give, there is a lot waiting for him to accomplish."
Follow Frederick Tiffin on Twitter: @FrederickTiffin