May 19, 2006

New crackdown on opposition / Faction leader arrested

Police have arrested senior opposition politicians and deported South Africa's most powerful union boss as President Robert Mugabe's government pressed on with a crackdown against its critics. Arthur Mutambara, who leads one faction of Zimbabwe's splintered opposition Movement for Democratic Change, was arrested with other MDC officials while campaigning ahead of a Harare by-election seen as a key test of voter discontent with Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF. MDC Secretary General Welshman Ncube said that Mutambara was arrested along with the faction's candidate for the Budiriro constituency and at least five other senior MDC figures.

An earlier MDC statement said a total of 70 people were rounded up in the sweep. The party later said the group had been released pending a court appearance on Monday to face charges of violating Zimbabwe's tough security laws. "The arrests serve as a depressing reminder of the political intolerance that exists in Zimbabwe and the arbitrary application of the rule of law," Ncube's statement said. The arrests came amid a crackdown by Mugabe's security forces ahead of possible opposition protests, spurred by the country's collapsing economy. Zimbabwe's inflation has topped 1.000 percent, unemployment is at more than 70 percent and people struggle with shortages of food, fuel and power.

The parliamentary by-election in Budiriro was being fought hard by the MDC, which hoped it could turn back a ZANU-PF challenge and hold on to the seat to prove its charges that Mugabe's popularity is waning. Both Mutambara's faction, which split from the main party this year, and the original MDC under veteran leader Morgan Tsvangirai are fielding candidates. Rights groups say the government has sent security forces to ban marches, detain critics and intimidate opponents amid opposition vows of peaceful protests and strike threats by unions.

The leader of South Africa's powerful COSATU labour federation was unceremoniously expelled from Harare before to prevent him from attending a meeting of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), an ally of the opposition MDC. "It is a sad day indeed," Congress of South African Trade Unions General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said upon his arrival back in Johannesburg, vowing to seek a return to Zimbabwe as soon as possible. "After two decades of so-called freedom and democracy in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe government will not allow (entry to) a trade union leader who is critical." Harare barred three other foreign unionists from attending the ZCTU's two-day meeting, expected to discuss workers' demands for higher wages and debate calls for a strike to push home their demands for economic change. A day before, police had arrested about 100 people demonstrating for political reforms. There was no immediate comment from either their pressure group or the police on whether they had been fined and released, as is usually the case. (Rts/Zimbabwe Online, South Africa)

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