HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s sense of promise after the downfall of former President Robert Mugabe is bittersweet for the family of Itai Dzamara, a missing activist abducted by suspected state agents in 2015 after urging the longtime ruler to resign at a time when most Zimbabweans dared not do so.
Dzamara’s wife, Sheffra, and his brother, Patson, are now hoping new President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a key enforcer for Mugabe over the decades, will explain what happened to the activist after he was bundled into a car by five unidentified men.
Efforts to resolve the high-profile case could show whether Zimbabwe’s new leader will address the many human rights grievances during Mugabe’s rule or, as many observers believe, instead largely gloss over a repressive era during which he was a minister of state security, defense and justice.
“I hope the new president will do something” about the Itai Dzamara case, his wife said in an interview with The Associated Press at her home in Harare, the capital. “Even if they’ve killed him, I just want his body so that we have closure.”
Police previously said they were investigating Dzamara’s disappearance on March 9, 2015, though lack of progress drew criticism that it was not a serious inquiry. The former newspaper reporter was accosted when he was having a shave at a barbershop near his home and hustled away. Two days before his abduction, Dzamara told a rally organized by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai that Zimbabweans should rebel against Mugabe.
“We have every reason to believe 100 percent that what transpired had everything to do with the government,” said Patson Dzamara, noting that Mnangagwa was justice minister at the time and did not respond to a letter asking for help with the case.
Patson Dzamara was assaulted and arrested by state security agents after protesting his brother’s kidnapping by raising a placard in front of Mugabe when he was still president, and he was beaten by armed men on another occasion, according to Amnesty International.
Mugabe, who took power after independence from white minority rule in 1980, resigned on Nov. 21 after a military takeover that set off a nationwide clamor for the 93-year-old leader to quit. Since becoming president three days later, Mnangagwa has called for national reconciliation but so far has not addressed human rights issues in detail.
Ruling party officials have said Mugabe won’t face prosecution, indicating that many of those who backed him won’t be held accountable for alleged wrongdoings during his tenure. However, several political figures who backed a party faction opposed to Mnangagwa have been arrested in recent days.
Past abuses in Zimbabwe include the 1980s killings of thousands of people by a North Korea-trained military brigade when Mugabe moved against a political rival in the Matabeleland region; the seizures of white-owned farms and evictions starting around 2000; and deadly attacks on opposition figures during a 2008 election period marred by fraud.
In his inauguration speech, Mnangagwa promised that “democratic” elections will be held on schedule in 2018 and appealed to “those who have punished us in the past to reconsider their economic and political sanctions against us.”
The new president, himself under U.S. sanctions for his activities as a top Mugabe aide, described his predecessor as a mentor. While Mnangagwa referred to past “errors of commission or omission” in Zimbabwe, he also said people should not “remain hostages to our past” and should “let bygones be bygones.”
As minister of state security in the 1980s, Mnangagwa was in charge of an intelligence agency involved in interrogations, torture and killings during the Matabeleland crackdown but did not take the lead in the slaughter, according to a column in The Zimbabwe Mail, a diaspora-based publication.
“He was not the architect, but he was one of them,” wrote columnist Stuart Doran, author of a book about the ascent of Mugabe and his political support base.
Patson Dzamara, the missing activist’s brother, said Mnangagwa should be given a chance to lead Zimbabwe on a reform path despite past misdeeds. He said the new president should apologize to begin a national healing process.
The brother spoke of the citywide celebrations last week after Mugabe’s resignation was announced during impeachment proceedings against him. Dzamara joined a jubilant crowd.
“In that excitement, something struck me,” he said. “I remembered my brother, and that was it. It was enough to break me down. I broke down. I wept like a baby.”
Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at www.twitter.com/torchiachris