JOHANNESBURG – Former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds said Tuesday he is in hiding in South Africa after being deported from Zimbabwe because he fears for his life for threatening to expose allegedly illegal business dealings between American businessmen and the southern African country.
Zimbabwe's Deputy Minister of Information Supa Mandiwanzira dismissed the claims as untrue and "capricious."
Reynolds, who lost his Illinois congressional seat in 1995 after being convicted of statutory rape, was arrested in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, on Feb. 16 and pleaded guilty to charges of violating the country's immigration laws. After a few days in prison, he was fined and deported. The court dismissed charges of possessing pornography on a technicality.
Reynolds had gained prominence in Zimbabwe for reportedly attracting investment for the $145 million construction of a Hilton Hotel and office complex in Harare, according to The Herald, the government-run newspaper in Zimbabwe. It said construction is expected to begin in April.
The ex-Illinois congressman said he has visited Zimbabwe 17 times in the past four years and accused the Mugabe regime of "trumping up" pornography charges to discredit him.
The U.S. currently has sanctions preventing President Robert Mugabe and top members of his government from traveling to or having financial holdings in the U.S.
Reynolds told The Associated Press by telephone that he believes he is being pursued by a secret Zimbabwean death squad because he said he threatened to disclose information on U.S. businessmen, especially from Chicago, who are doing business illegally with Zimbabwe, involving "blood diamonds." He said he also has information on money laundering by Zimbabwe's government.
He did not give more details but said he planned to hold a press conference in South Africa in the next few days before returning to Chicago where he would reveal details, including names, to support his claims, which AP could not verify.
Mandiwanzira told AP by telephone from Harare, Zimbabwe: "If the Zimbabwean government had anything to hide, we would have kept him [Reynolds] here. The fact that we did not should indicate to anyone that the claims are not true. The fact of the matter is that he was found to be in the country illegally. He had overstayed his visa and so he was deported."
Reynolds said he had been subjected to "horrendous" conditions in jail in Zimbabwe.
"There was no running water and no working toilets and the stench was beyond your imagination," he said. "About 60 people dressed in rags slept on concrete floors and we were only given one meal a day. The food was so bad that I ate only one meal on the Tuesday and didn't eat again until I got out on the Sunday."
He said that while in custody his big toe had almost been severed when he was attacked from behind in the dark by inmates and pushed into a toilet. He said he was denied medical treatment, and believes the prison guards encouraged the inmates to attack him. When he arrived in South Africa he said he was treated in a hospital for a severe toe infection.