Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was beaten up and briefly knocked unconscious as he attempted to stage a citizen’s arrest of the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Brussels today, Monday 5 March 2001.
As Mr Tatchell tried to arrest the President on charges of torture under the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, he was punched and kicked by Mugabe’s bodyguards, who knocked him to the ground three times.
Belgian secret service agents stepped aside and gave the President’s security men free rein to beat Tatchell until he blacked out and fell into the gutter outside the Hilton Hotel.
Two Zimbabwean agents, believed to be members of Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), threatened to have Tatchell traced and killed: “You are dead”, said one. “We will find you and kill you”, said the other.
“The assaults on me by the President’s bodyguards highlight the brutal nature of the Mugabe regime”, said Mr Tatchell.
“This protest was an attempt to remind Mugabe that sooner or later he will be arrested and put on trial for torture and other human rights abuses, such as the massacres in Matabeleland and the terrorisation of the judiciary and political opponents”.
“I am lucky to escape with a beating. If any Zimbabwean had staged this protest in Harare, they would have been shot”, added Mr Tatchell.
Belgium has incorporated the 1984 UN Convention into its domestic legislation. According to Belgian law, the authorities are under a legal obligation to arrest any person, present in Belgian territory, who has committed or authorised acts of torture anywhere in the world.
As President Mugabe was walking through the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, after a meeting the EU Commissioner, Poul Nielson, Mr Tatchell slipped between his bodyguards and tried to effect a citizen’s arrest. He approached the President saying:
“President Mugabe, you are under arrest on charges of torture. Torture is a crime under the United Nations Convention Against Torture 1984. You authorised the torture of Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka”.
Mr Tatchell was unable to say anything more, as he was grabbed around the throat by four of the President’s bodyguards who pushed him into a corner of the hotel lobby, punching and kicking him to the ground even though the President had by this time passed, and despite Tatchell offering no resistance and posing no threat to the President. Journalists and photographers were also manhandled.
With President Mugabe momentarily stuck in the hotel’s revolving door, Mr Tatchell ran through the emergency exit to confront him outside on the pavement. But he was grabbed around the neck by two Belgian secret service agents who pushed him backwards and slammed his head against the plate glass window of the Hilton Hotel.
While these agents were holding him, two members of President Mugabe’s entourage came up to Tatchell. They threatened to track down and kill him. One went to punch Mr Tatchell in the face, but seeing the Belgian agents desisted. The Belgian secret service men then let go of Tatchell and walked away, giving the two Zimbabweans a free had to punch Mr Tatchell around the head and body, knocking him to the ground.
The Zimbabweans then turned their wrath on the journalists, pushing and shoving them out of the way. The BBC reporter was grabbed by the throat.
While the President’s bodyguards sought to get him into his limousine, Mr Tatchell ran around behind the melee, and stood in front of the limousine as it attempted to leave – forcing the President’s car to halt.
Within seconds, one of the President’s bodyguards got out of his vehicle and punched Mr Tatchell in the side of the head, knocking him unconscious and into the gutter.
The Presidential motorcade then sped off for Mugabe’s meeting with the Belgium Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt.
After recovering, Mr Tatchell went to the Prime Minister’s office in Rue Lambermont, determined to confront Mugabe again.
While waiting outside, he was filmed by the Zimbabwean Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). “For our records”, they told him.
As Mugabe was about to leave the Prime Minister’s office, his bodyguards and CIO agents came out into the street. The Zimbabwean agent who had punched Tatchell in the face outside the Hilton Hotel and threatened to kill him, pointed out Tatchell to his colleagues. He then started to walk straight towards Tatchell, reaching under under jacket, as if he had a gun.
The Belgian uniformed police on duty made no attempt to stop the menacing response of the Zimbabwean agents.
“At that moment, I was in fear of my life. I thought the Zimbabwean agent might have a gun and might shoot me”, said Tatchell, who backed away.
As Mugabe left, Tatchell shouted: “Mugabe, Murderer! Mugabe, Torturer!”