CANBERRA – Jacqueline Zwambila says pro-President Robert Mugabe officials actively disrupted the country’s diplomatic mission in Canberra in a campaign to undermine her as ambassador.
The outgoing diplomat’s four-year tenure as top envoy to Australia is due to end today, after she was one of about 20 ambassadors recently recalled from Zimbabwe’s various diplomatic missions.
But instead of stepping on a plane bound for Harare today, Zwambila has applied for political asylum in Australia.
She has also offered insight into operations at the Zimbabwe embassy in Australia, a rare step in diplomatic circles.
The ambassador made the decision to defect because she fears for her safety if she were to return to Zimbabwe.
Zwambila was a political activist with MDC-T, and was appointed ambassador under a power-sharing deal with Mugabe’s Zanu PF party.
She said pro-Mugabe staff employed at the O’Malley embassy made for a dysfunctional workplace.
“There was a sustained campaign against me from the very beginning of arriving in Australia,” she said.
“It was a major challenge working in an embassy [where] I was constantly being undermined by officers. I had no co-operation at all. Every day I was undermined.”
The diplomats were recalled after Mugabe retained the presidency in July with 61% of the vote, albeit amid claims of election fraud.
Zwambila said the win was followed by a crackdown on MDC supporters, with a number arrested on trumped-up charges.
She feared indefinite custody if she returned, as a Zimbabwean court had found she had not paid $2700 to a tradesman who worked on the house she owns in Norton.
She denied owing the money.
“I do not feel safe to return to Zimbabwe,” Zwambila said.
Her diplomatic visa expires with her post, so she will rely on a bridging visa after her diplomatic status is cancelled.
Her application is currently with the Immigration Department.
If the bid is unsuccessful she could challenge the decision in the Refugee Review Tribunal, the Federal Court, and directly to Immigration minister Scott Morrison.
Former Foreign minister Alexander Downer said Australia had little to lose by granting Zwambila refuge.
He told Australia’s ABC radio yesterday that a lack of economic ties between Australia and Zimbabwe meant that the Mugabe government could do nothing but complain.
“To be frank, there’s not much the Zimbabwe government can do about it,” Downer said.
“Through simply appalling economic policies (they) have isolated themselves very much from the international community.
“They can hardly punish Australia by threatening Australian investments in Zimbabwe because most Australian investments in Zimbabwe have been either confiscated, withdrawn or nationalised.”
Morrison said any application for asylum would be considered on its merits.
Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles said that he agreed with Morrison’s stance.
Downer said the government’s position was correct.
“If she’s made an application for a protection visa, I think it would be appropriate to handle it in the normal way – which I think the government is doing,’’ he said.
Zwambila is the second Tsvangirai supporter to seek asylum after the recall of diplomats, with ambassador to Germany Hebson Makuvise also reportedly defecting.
But Zimbabwe has dismissed her personal safety concerns.
Meanwhile, Zwambila said she was ready to continue a defamation case she brought against a Zimbabwean freelance journalist.
Earlier this month the ambassador won the case against Panganai Reason Wafawarova, who wrote an article alleging she stripped in front of embassy staff.
An ACT Supreme Court judge struck out the defence offered by the journalist after he repeatedly failed to provide documents relevant to the case.
A hearing has been set for April to decide the amount Wafawarova must pay the ambassador.
— Canberra Times