02-19-2017  10:49 pm      •     

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) -- Outgoing U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe James D. McGee promised more United States support for the country's political and economic recovery Friday but said democratic reforms needed to be in place first.
McGee, a harsh critic of President Robert Mugabe's autocratic rule, strongly rejected the idea that Zimbabwe requires more support from donors to restore the rule of law, respect for human rights and to guarantee basic freedoms of speech and association.
"It doesn't cost anything ... to have judges apply the law equally. Dropping phantom politically motivated prosecutions is free. Stopping the arrests of political activists and independent journalists is also free,'' McGee told hundreds of guests at a celebration marking the anniversary of U.S. independence that falls on July 4.
McGee also argued that it did not cost money to allow media organizations and foreign journalists to practice openly in Zimbabwe, which might help improve the nation's tarnished image and create more interest and revenue.
"These are the kinds of steps we need to see to expand our commitment to Zimbabwe,'' McGee said.
McGee leaves Harare Sunday after a three-year assignment in Zimbabwe embroiled in controversy. The pro-Mugabe state media launched repeated attacks against McGee, who is black, during his tenure, describing him as a "house Negro'' for white Western leaders.
McGee said Friday's Independence Day celebration was his farewell to "a rich and vibrant country that still has the opportunity to get it right.''
"For real change to take hold in Zimbabwe, average Zimbabweans must do what the founders of the U.S. did ... They must stand up for their rights and demand a government of their choosing that serves their interests. If they do so, I promise the United States will support them,'' he said.
Mugabe formed a coalition in February with former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in a deal brokered by regional leaders after a decade of violent confrontation and economic meltdown. The new government has made "remarkable'' achievements on economic reform and donor backed social programs in recent months but much remained to be done, McGee said.
"Justice and healing from last year's widespread violence remain elusive,'' he said.
McGee cited one recent case reported by human rights groups of an activist of Tsvangirai's party who was assaulted with an ax, almost severing his arm, when he returned for the first time to his home village. He was attacked by the same assailant who severely injured him in political clashes last year.
Police also refused to act on complaints by villagers across the country whose grain, farm tools and livestock were stolen by Mugabe party supporters around last year's disputed elections.
"The thugs who stole chickens and plows continue to live alongside the rightful owners and use these stolen goods with impunity,'' McGee said.
Over the past 18 months, the United States has given $400 million to Zimbabwe in humanitarian aid. President Barack Obama pledged another $73 million to Tsvangirai, prime minister in the coalition, during his visit to the White House last month.
"I'd like to stand here and say we will give even more support to Zimbabwe but we need to see progress on critical issues,'' McGee said.
Mugabe's party blames economic sanctions imposed by the West for the southern African country's economic meltdown. Critics point to the collapse of the agriculture-based economy after the seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms that began in the former regional breadbasket in 2000.
Tsvangirai returned home Monday after a three-week trip to Europe and the U.S. to re-engage with Western nations after a decade of isolation.
Obama has appointed Charles Ray, a career diplomat since 1982 who is also an African-American, to succeed McGee. McGee is scheduled to take up a senior post at the African Center for Strategic Studies at the U.S. National Defense University.

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