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National Portrait Gallery

February 4th 2009

Photo: Brian Gilliland

Following an extremely kind offer from one of our long-term supporters we were able to hold a special reception at the National Portrait Gallery in London to highlight our work with prisoners of conscience in Zimbabwe. Our good friend John Simpson, the BBC World Affairs Editor kindly agreed to come along and speak, as did Shepherd Yuda, one of our beneficiaries who received a grant in 2009. It was also the perfect opportunity to preview a selection of the stunning images taken for us by a senior staff photographer at Getty Images who had travelled undercover to Zimbabwe last summer.

Photo: Brian Gilliland

We were lucky enough to be given access to the stunning Balcony Gallery for the event so our invited donors, trustees, supporters and volunteers also got to enjoy the work of artists such as, Lucien Freud, Bryan Organ and Chris Ofili.

The evening was opened with a speech from Sir Henry Brooke, the Chair of our Trustees. He then introduced John Simpson who spoke about the current political and humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe and explained how being a member of an opposition political party, something we take for granted, requires a huge amount of courage and personal conviction in a country such as Zimbabwe. Here at Prisoners of Conscience (PoC) we have helped over 200 activists from Zimbabwe who have been victims of intimidation, unlawful detention and appalling violence just for expressing their peaceful opposition to the government.

John then introduced a slideshow of some of the images taken recently for PoC in Zimbabwe. These remarkable photos show courageous individuals who have been persecuted and tortured for their support of the opposition MDC party and do make quite harrowing viewing, but they depict in unprecedented detail the reality of the conditions our beneficiaries have to endure. After viewing the photos Shepherd bravely agreed to share his own story of persecution in Zimbabwe with our guests.

Photo: Brian Gilliland

Shepherd was a prison guard in Zimbabwe.  Highly trained and well paid, he was loyal to the government, until he realised just how bad things had become.  Shepherd is also a peaceful, honest man.  When he joined the opposition party, the MDC, his personal nightmare began and over a number of years he was beaten, thrown in prison himself, and then demoted.  After secretly filming prison conditions and vote-rigging last year, it became clear that he must flee for his life, and take his wife and children with him. Once he arrived in the UK and was granted refugee status his troubles unfortunately weren’t over as he had no money and the food the family had saved in anticipation of a wait until Shepherd’s application for Jobseeker’s Allowance was processed run out. They were literally starving and extremely concerned for the health of their baby son. Thankfully we were able to rush through a relief grant so they could buy food and essential items for the baby.

Photo: Brian Gilliland

Everyone was moved by Shepherd’s very personal account and after the closing thanks by Lynn Carter, PoC Director, our guests took the opportunity to chat to him and the other staff and trustees about Zimbabwe and our work in the region.

The evening was a great success and a full exhibition of all 30 or so images taken by our photographer is being planned for later in the year. Details will of course be posted on our website.