Veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has said ‘brutal’ Zimbabwean ruler Robert Mugabe was his most dangerous opponent during more than five decades of campaigning.
The African leader’s bodyguards viciously attacked the LGBT+ activist as he attempted a citizens’ arrest at a hotel in Brussels on March 5, 2001, leaving him with long-term eyesight and cognitive damage.
Tatchell described the former president, who left behind a litany of human rights abuses after his death in 2019, as a ‘scary’ experience that he would nevertheless be prepared to attempt again.
Reflecting on 54 years of campaigning, which are the focus of a new, Netflix-hosted film about his life entitled Hating Peter Tatchell, he said Vladimir Putin would now be top of his list for another citizens’ arrest attempt.
Having being tipped off about Mugabe’s movements, Tatchell tried to apprehend the leader over human rights violations before he was punched, kicked and dragged into a corner of the lobby by the henchmen.
A loud crack sounded as he was struck with force to the back of his head and he was hit again outside the hotel, where he was rendered unconscious.
‘Mugabe was a particularly heinous dictator and I knew if I tried to challenge him, his bodyguards might retaliate with violence,’ Tatchell said.
‘It was a very scary thing to attempt to make those citizens’ arrests, the second one of which resulted in me being beaten unconscious by his thugs.
‘It was bad news for me because I ended up with a bit of cognitive and eye damage, but it was great in terms of exposing the brutality of his regime.
‘People concluded that if Mugabe was prepared to have his goons beat up a peaceful protester in the heart of the capital of a European city in broad daylight, in front of the world’s media, just imagine what he is doing when no one is watching.’
Mugabe, regarded as a liberator turned oppressor, had been in Belgium to conclude an aid and trade deal when Tatchell challenged him in the Hilton hotel. Despite being left senseless in the gutter, he managed to get back to his feet and speak his case to the startled media pack at the scene.
The dissenting voice was left with a degree of PTSD and lasting damage to his eyesight, concentration, memory and coordination.
On advice from police in London that he might be targeted for assassination by Mugabe’s agents, he took extra security precautions at his home in London. Yet the chilling warning was nothing out of the ordinary.
The LGBT+ figurehead has been the target of 50 attacks on his flat and half a dozen plots to take his life. The confrontation followed another attempt he had made in October 1999 to carry out a citizens’ arrest of Mugabe.
The campaigner had opened the high-roller’s limousine door outside a London hotel and told him: ‘You are under arrest on charges of torture.’
‘I’ve no regrets,’ Tatchell told usnewsrank.com.
‘Although obviously I didn’t want to get beaten up or suffer these lasting injuries it was a positive experience in that it helped shine a light the thuggery of the Mugabe regime.’
The charity director also clashed with Mike Tyson on June 2, 2002, confronting the legendary boxer outside his gym in Memphis over his use of homophobic language.
The former world heavyweight champion shook Tatchell’s hand and said: ‘I oppose all discrimination against gay people.’
Closer to home, the far-right has proved a sinister and lasting threat.
In 1978, Tatchell was set upon by National Front supporters as he tried to stop them attacking a young black teenager at Waterloo train station.
He has also taken on the BNP and the EDL during 3,000 non-violent protests over the years.
Another notable stand came in 2018, when Tatchell was arrested in Moscow in a one-man protest against the Russian treatment of the LGBT+ community.
He had returned despite being beaten up in the city nine years previously, when police stood and watched before arresting him.
Putin, whose government has passed a law banning gay ‘propaganda’ and outlawed same-sex marriages, would be Tatchell’s next ideal target for a human rights ambush. The Russian premiere comes ahead of China’s President Xi Jinping and George Bush on his list of potential targets.
Tatchell, who heads human rights group the Peter Tatchell Foundation, spoke ahead of the premiere of a documentary chronicling his 50 years of LGBT+ and other human rights campaigning.
The film, which is being launched in Mayfair, London, on Sunday, is billed as charting the Australian-born activist’s journey from ‘most hated man in Britain’ to ‘national treasure’.
Executive produced by Elton John and David Furnish, the feature includes an intimate conversation between Tatchell and celebrated actor Ian McKellen and takes in his encounters with Mugabe and Tyson.
Despite making world headlines, the 69-year-old pinpointed his work with LGBT+ group OutRage! in the UK as his biggest achievement to date.
‘It was a long, hard and at times daunting struggle,’ Tatchell said.
‘But I’ve never lost hope. I’ve always believed that justice was on our side and good would triumph in the end. The LGBT+ campaign I am most proud of is the battle against police harassment of our community.
‘In the early 1990s the police were arresting almost as many gay men as in the 1950s, using a very homophobic interpretation of the law.
‘Myself and my OutRage! colleagues tried to negotiate with the police, but it didn’t work so we began a campaign of direct action and civil disobedience.
‘A lot of us were arrested but in the end the police were forced to recognise what they were doing was persecution not protection.
‘As a result, there was a two-thirds fall in the number of gay and bisexual men convicted for consenting offences.
Tatchell wants the film to demonstrate that social change is possible, even in a world with no shortage of malevolent forces.
‘I hope it will inspire a new generation of change-makers,’ he said.
‘It is a snapshot of my thousands of protests and campaigns over the last five decades, since the late 1960s. I’ve done my bit, as have many others. Together, we’ve changed laws and attitudes on LGBT+ issues.’
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