Jailers handcuffed opposition lawmaker Roy Bennett and forced him to kneel on the concrete floor during a visit by his lawyer. He was not allowed to wear a hat while working under the searing African sun which burned weals into his skin. Now supporters of the popular white lawmaker are fighting back. The “Free Bennett” campaign has generated a website, street graffiti and thousands of support letters—rallying opposition among both blacks and whites to President Robert Mugabe’s increasingly autocratic rule. Bennett, 47, is the first legislator to be imprisoned by parliament’s Privilege Committee, which has powers of arrest for breaches of conduct. He was jailed for a year with hard labour on October 18 for getting into an altercation with a cabinet minister during a particularly heated debate. Assault cases in Zimbabwe typically carry small fines of less than Z$20 000. But the ruling Zanu-PF-dominated parliament appears to have sought to make an example of Bennett, a member of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Friends and family formed the Free Roy Bennett Campaign to call attention to his arrest and what his wife, Heather, describes as the degrading treatment he receives from vindictive prison guards egged on by ruling party officials. The campaign has been overwhelmed with messages of support from around the world, including human rights and lawyers groups, foreign governments and parliamentarians. “Free Bennett” graffiti has appeared on fences and walls around the country. And the campaign website recorded more than 1 000 hits on its first day on December 1. Last week, they had their first success: Bennett got a hat to wear when he digs trenches inside the prison yard. But that is little consolation to Heather Bennett, 42, the mother of his two teenage children. “Nothing has had an effect, nothing gets done,” she lamented. Bennett is not allowed food or clothing from outside the spartan prison at Mutoko, 150 kilometres northeast of Harare. He shares a cramped, filthy and lice-infested cell with 38 convicts who sleep on the floor with a single blanket each. Their meals comprise a teacup of rice or beans served with cabbage gruel twice a day. Bennett’s wife is permitted to see him through a fence once every two weeks for just 10 minutes, though she managed to stretch out the last visit to 30 minutes. Mugabe’s government and prison authorities “are not in a conciliatory mood,” said Bennett’s campaign.