Ex-U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds: I Was Tortured in Africa | WBEZ
Skip to main content


Ex-U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds: I Was Tortured in Africa

Alleging he “was subject to physical and psychological torture” in an African prison five years ago, thrice-convicted former Congressman Mel Reynolds has sued the deposed dictator of Zimbabwe and a prominent Chicago businessman in federal court here.

In a complaint obtained by WBEZ, Reynolds says his travails in Africa in February 2014 left him with “severe permanent physical” injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, and he argues that he should get $35 million for his suffering.

Among a long list of defendants named in Reynolds’ suit, which was filed Tuesday, are several Zimbabwean officials, including Robert Mugabe — the 95-year-old politician who reigned over the country for decades, until he lost power in 2017 — and politically connected real-estate developer Elzie Higginbottom.

Higginbottom had paid the former Democratic congressman to help him develop business in Zimbabwe. But Higginbottom testified for federal prosecutors in Reynolds’ 2014 trial on misdemeanor tax charges for hiding income from his work in Africa. That case led to Reynolds’ third criminal conviction.

A Rhodes Scholar who was once seen as a rising star in Chicago politics, Reynolds was forced from Congress in 1995 after he was convicted for having sex with a 16-year-old campaign worker.

While in prison for that crime, he was convicted a second time on a litany of charges, including misusing campaign funds and bank fraud. Then-President Bill Clinton commuted his sentence in 2001.

But Reynolds burst back into the news yet again in February 2014, when he was arrested in Zimbabwe on pornography charges. Those allegations were dropped, but he admitted to an immigration violation and was deported from Zimbabwe.

Reynolds says he was in a hotel suite in the country’s capital of Harare when police “barged in shouting, ‘Don’t move or you’re dead,”” and arrested him.

Reynolds alleges he then was “placed in a holding cell with no working toilet or running water,” according to the newly filed lawsuit, which cites the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, a U.S. law.

“The beating and intimation [sic] started immediately,” according to the lawsuit. “Plaintiff received a very deep cut to his left foot that nearly severed his big toe after being pushed, punched and kicked into a filthy rusty metal latrine.”

He says he ended up “on the concrete floor bleeding profusely and being verbally abused by other inmates and prison guards with chants of ‘dirty American.’”

After being denied medical treatment, Reynolds says, he got a life-threatening infection from the cut on his foot.

And the beatings caused his collarbone to be “severely dislocated,” an injury that continues to pain him now, according to court documents.

In the complaint, Reynolds repeated long-running allegations that Higginbottom bribed Mugabe to get “blood diamonds” from Zimbabwe.

On Wednesday, Reynolds’ lawyer Ernest Thomas Rossiello of Chicago said Reynolds was arrested in Africa “in retaliation” for refusing to be part of the bribery scheme.

“For doing the right thing, he was tortured,” Rossiello said, adding that the week in prison in Zimbabwe caused Reynolds to spend three months in a hospital after he was deported.

Higginbottom did not reply to messages Wednesday but previously denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime.

Officials at Zimbabwe’s embassy in Washington, D.C., also did not return messages Wednesday.

After his latest prison term in this country, Reynolds was released to a halfway house in November 2018 and moved to the south suburbs, according to court records.

Last month, while on supervised release, Reynolds asked for and got permission to return to Africa “so he can continue his work supplying medical supplies to health care systems in southern Africa, where there is a desperate need for these supplies.”

Representing himself, Reynolds wrote that he wanted “to get on with the remainder of the life that he has left in Africa” and that his “time in Africa will be indefinite.”

But as of Wednesday, his lawyer said Reynolds remained in the Chicago area.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @dmihalopoulos.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.