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Sunday, 5 January 2003

Gay Zimbabwean pianist faces deportation

Source: The Observer

By Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

He is one of the most promising young pianists playing in Britain. Now he faces the threat of violent persecution after Britain refused his application for political asylum and decreed that he should return to his native Zimbabwe.

Michael Brownlee Walker, 25, who is gay, received a letter from the Home Office last month turning down his application for asylum and informing him he must leave the country, in spite of his fears of victimisation.

Brownlee Walker, who won a place five years ago to study classical piano at the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, is the great-grandson of one of Zimbabwe's earliest white settlers. His family ran a large farm near Bulawayo in the south of the country, but last Easter the property was overrun by supporters of President Robert Mugabe. His parents and brother have since fled the country.

As the son of a prominent former landowner, Brownlee Walker believes that his surname alone is likely to ensure he is harassed and possibly detained if he goes back to Zimbabwe. What is more, in recent months the accomplished accompanist has attended several protest events organised in London by exiled members of the opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change or MDC.

But Brownlee Walker says it is his sexuality that is prompting his greatest fears about his safety in Zimbabwe. Attitudes to gay people there have always been oppressive, he argues, but with the recent deterioration of law and order in the country reported incidents of organised violence have increased.

'There is no rule of law any more,' said Brownlee Walker. 'If the police say they want to detain you, there is very little you can do.'

Mugabe once denounced homosexuals as 'worse than dogs and pigs', and asked police to help 'root the evil out'.

Gay activists, members of the organisations Gay and Lesbians in Zimbabwe and GayZim, suggest that they support any Zimbabwean's right to seek asylum. In Britain, the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell also supports Brownlee Walker's case.

'Victimisation of the gay community is universal and constant in Zimbabwe,' Tatchell said. 'But every gay person is at risk of being picked on and made an example of. In these circumstances no one is safe.'

Brownlee Walker, who has lost a lot of weight and received hospital treatment during the period of his asylum application, now has no income. His £29.89 a week asylum seekers' allowance was stopped before Christmas and he is no longer allowed to accept offers of work. He is living in London at the home of the acclaimed concert pianist, Leslie Howard, an old family friend. Howard believes Brownlee Walker has an unusual musical talent and would be unable to pursue a career in Zimbabwe.

'There are only a few people around who can sight-read and accompany singers quite like Michael can,' said Leslie. 'I would say a dozen at the most. It would be terrible if he had to drop his career at this stage, and, of course, he can't play professionally in this country either now.'

Brownlee Walker was able to perform publicly while in this country as a student and he immediately applied for asylum when he left college in August 2001.

'I wanted the chance to work again,' he said. 'At the time of my original application my parents were still on the farm but things were looking grim. It was a matter of time until it affected them.'

In the following months his mother was frequently intimidated in her shop by supporters of the ruling Zanu PF party and levels of poaching on the farm increased dramatically. Then 200 armed 'war veterans' invaded the farm and forced his parents to dance in the yard, chanting 'Down with the Brownlee Walkers'.

'I have no family there now,' said Brownlee Walker. 'They were all advised to evacuate because it was so dangerous. They had started to kill farmers including people we knew. My parents are in South Africa, so I don't have to worry about that. But I worry for myself.'

His first refusal from the Home Office came through in November 2001 and an appeal was launched that resulted in a court appearance late this summer.

The court decision was upheld at a subsequent tribunal and, while Brownlee Walker can still vote or be called to sit on a British jury, he cannot work or pay tax. He has already had to turn down concert work in Prague and a contract to play on a cruise ship because he would not be allowed back into Britain afterwards.

'Either friends have to continue to help him or he goes to a detention centre,' said Howard. 'I am very angry. I know we can't afford to take in six million starving Zimbabweans, but it does astonish me that we haven't stood up more to what is going on. We should be saying that this is now the most awful regime.'

For Brownlee Walker there are few avenues left, although he is hoping to send in a fresh application for asylum on the grounds that his family circumstances have radically altered. The Home Secretary suspended enforced deportations to Zimbabwe a year ago, following a series of articles in The Observer, but the threat is still there.

'Everything turns on this situation for me now. I have spent all my adult life here, but if everything was all right in Zimbabwe I would love to go there, to help develop music,' he said.

Howard is organising a Concert For Zimbabwe at St John Smith Square on 30 April. Money raised will go into a charitable trust to promote classical music in Zimbabwe.
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