December 14, 2001

Opposition leader arrested, released

Zimbabwean police arrested the nation's main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, in a pre-dawn raid on his home on Friday, December 14, and then released him a few hours later. The arrest came in the increasingly tense run-up to a general election, and as President Robert Mugabe, whose supporters have been blamed for widespread violence against opposition party members, was due to open the congress of his own party. Learnmore Jongwe, representative for Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said the party leader's arrest was ostensibly due to a walkie-talkie radio that police found in possession of three of his security guards during an earlier raid on Thursday. "The walkie-talkie does not need a license. It can be bought from any supermarket," Jongwe said.

Police arrested Tsvangirai at 4:38 a.m. at his home in Harare's suburbs. Three truckloads of armed police had made an overnight search of Tsvangirai's home on December 13, and arrested three of his security guards. Police had taken the walkie-talkies from the security guards on Thursday, and returned in the pre-dawn raid on Friday to arrest Tsvangirai. The arrest came as Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party was preparing for the official opening of its congress in the western resort town of Victoria Falls, ahead of the presidential elections in March 2002. Tsvangirai has posed the most potent threat ever to Mugabe's 21 years in power. Government has tried to convict Tsvangirai under colonial-era laws that were initially designed to prosecute the nationalists now in power. The Supreme Court in November threw out charges of terrorism against Tsvangirai, saying the law under which he was charged was unconstitutional. A conviction against the opposition leader could have ended in life imprisonment and prevented him from contesting next March's election.

Already on Wednesday, December 12, President Robert Mugabe had won a pat from visiting African ministers when they ended talks by backing his land reforms and opposing potential sanctions imposed by the West. Ministers in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) "welcomed the legislative and other mechanisms the government was putting in place to guard against violence and to ensure transparency" ahead of March elections. SADC ministers also declared, that they "expressed their concern at the distorted and negative perceptions of Zimbabwe projected by the international and regional media". The communique stood in sharp contrast to recent statements from European, South African and US officials, who have warned of a breakdown of law in Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, ZANU-PF lost its third mayoral election to Zimbabwe's main opposition movement on December 10. Francis Dhlakama of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) beat Stanley Majiri of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party in the polls at Chegutu, 100 km (65 miles), south of the capital Harare, according to election officials. Dhlakama polled 2,900 votes against Majiri's 2,452 in a weekend election close to Mugabe's rural home. ZANU-PF said on Monday night they planned to contest the result, which they said was marred by violent clashes between ZANU-PF and MDC supporters. ZANU-PF, which previously held the Chegutu mayoral seat, has lost two other seats over the past seven months, including Zimbabwe's second city Bulawayo in September and the southern town of Masvingo in May.

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