There is blood on the dictator's hands, but no court that could try him, writes David Blair. ROBERT MUGABE never showed any compunction about using violence against his opponents. When he faced general strikes in Zimbabwe a decade ago, it was entirely natural for him to appear on state television and warn: "I have many degrees in violence." In the 1970s his rebel army murdered thousands of civilians, singling out black villagers as often as white farmers. Dozens of his commanders were jailed and tortured, suspected of disloyalty. Yet his greatest crimes came after he won power in 1980. The massacres in the Matabeleland region of south-west Zimbabwe between 1982 and 1987 form an indelible scar on his rule. The violence began when he tried to secure his grip on power by crushing his black opponents. Joshua Nkomo, leader of the ZAPU party, was the key rival. Using the presence of armed dissidents as an excuse, Mr Mugabe deployed a new military unit, the Fifth Brigade, to ZAPU's stronghold in Matabeleland. This arid area is the home of Zimbabwe's minority Ndebele people. Here, the Fifth Brigade unleashed a brutal campaign of terror, burying victims in mass graves or flinging their bodies down mine shafts. Investigators later compiled a meticulous report, Breaking The Silence, that recorded atrocities of mind-numbing horror. One pregnant woman said: "They hit me in the stomach with the butt of the gun. The unborn child broke in pieces in my stomach. It was God's desire that I did not die too. The child was born afterwards, piece by piece." Mr Mugabe's culpability is clear. In order to be guilty of crimes against humanity, international law specifies that an individual must hold "command responsibility" for the forces carrying out atrocities. The Fifth Brigade was outside the army's command structure and its soldiers answered directly to him. An official inquiry appointed by the government in 1983 heard descriptions of mass shootings, beatings and the burning to death of people in huts. When it handed its report to Mr Mugabe, he immediately suppressed it. The death toll in the Matabeleland massacres has never been established. Breaking The Silence records 3750 murders but states that the true figure was probably twice that. Tens of thousands more suffered torture, abduction, rape or assault. Nothing in Mr Mugabe's later rule compared with the brutality of his actions in Matabeleland, but in their callous, random brutality, the township demolitions of winter 2005 come close. Mr Mugabe decided to "clean up Zimbabwe's cities". Bulldozers were sent into the poorest townships of Harare, Bulawayo and every other urban centre and ordered to destroy "illegal structures". They flattened a random selection of houses, shacks, factories, shops, garages and businesses. A United Nations investigation found that 700,000 people lost their homes or livelihoods during this "disastrous" campaign. Coming in the midst of an economic crisis, the township demolitions showed Mr Mugabe's utter contempt for Zimbabwe's urban poor. Most of them supported the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. By wrecking their homes and livelihoods, he took his pitiless revenge. But there is virtually no chance of Mr Mugabe facing justice. Any new government is likely to promise him a quiet retirement as part of deal for a peaceful transition of power. In any case, there is simply no court in which he could be tried. Only the International Criminal Court could conceivably hear a case, but it has no jurisdiction over crimes committed before its foundation in July 2002. While the Matabeleland massacres would be firmly outside its remit, the township demolitions would not. But nobody has yet suggested these amounted to crimes against humanity. After all, no one was killed by the bulldozers. So Mr Mugabe will almost certainly die without having spent any time in the dock.