28 Feb 2002

More political unrest

Zimbabwean police arrested 31 members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Harare on Thursday, February 28, and nine people were injured in the melee, the opposition party said.

"Four truckloads with an unspecified number of police officers descended on the premises and started beating up people at random, while others surrounded the building where about 500 MDC supporters were undergoing polling agent training," the MDC said in a statement. The MDC said the 31 officials from the party's Harare provincial office were picked up as the police judged the meeting an illegal gathering under the terms of Zimbabwe's new public order law. The police were not available for comment, and international election observers could not at the time confirm the incident.

Zimbabwe's Vice President Joseph Msika on Thursday, February 28, denied the government had charged Tsvangirai with treason over the alleged plot to kill Mugabe. "No treason charge has been levelled against him by the government, but by the press," Msika said. However, MDC spokesman Learnmore Jongwe insisted Tsvangirai had been charged with treason, when he was warned and cautioned by the police on Monday, February 25. He said that the government's denial was related to this weekend's Commonwealth heads of state meeting in Australia, and Harare's alleged desire to improved its international image.

The charges against Tsvangirai stem from a grainy videotape screened by Australian television on 13 February. The seemingly heavily edited film allegedly showed a former Israeli intelligence agent, Ari Ben Menashe, discussing a plot to "eliminate" Mugabe with the MDC leader. Meanwhile, the MDC has begun legal action in Australia over the broadcasting of the videotape. The MDC has described the film as "malicious propaganda" and an attempt to smear Tsvangirai before the 9-10 March presidential election. There has been international concern that the charges against Tsvangirai are aimed at keeping him out of the presidential race. The United States and the European Union have already imposed targeted sanctions against Mugabe and his close associates following concern over the legitimacy of the poll. "If Mr Tsvangirai is taken out of the election process altogether, then that will obviously generate a very strong international reaction," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer reportedly said. He added that the allegations against Tsvangirai were "without credibility".

In a related development, Zimbabwe's Supreme Court rejected revised electoral laws on Wednesday, February 27, which news reports said dealt a blow to the government. In a second setback, a High Court judge also delayed the implementation of recently passed citizenship rules that had disqualified tens of thousands of voters. The Supreme Court cancelled the General Laws Amendment Act that had given state election officers sweeping powers and contained restrictions on vote monitoring, identity requirements for voters, campaigning and voter education. Because the act was struck down by a majority in the Supreme Court, the government cannot appeal against the judgment. However, Mugabe could use his presidential powers to override the Supreme Court, as he has done in the past.

Meanwhile, local residents in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo took the law into their own hands and attacked pro-government youth brigades that they said had been harassing communities, news reports said. Youth brigade members were forced to flee their base at a municipal hall in the suburb of Nketa on Saturday. Citizens, angered by an earlier assault on people at a local shopping centre, marched on the base, a Bulawayo journalist told IRIN. On Sunday, alleged youth brigade cadres who stoned a pub in the suburb of Emakhandeni, were beaten up by patrons. "Youth brigades have been a pain to the people of Zimbabwe and people have been afraid to retaliate, but now they are fed up," the journalist said. "People are saying that Matabeleland is an MDC stronghold, so we shouldn't allow ourselves to be harassed here."

Meanwhile, it was reported that the names of hundreds of urban voters, including those of prominent opposition party officials, are missing from the voters’ roll. This is raising fears that they could have been systematically struck off to disenfranchise voters ahead of next weekend’s crucial presidential election. Paul Themba Nyathi, the director of elections for the MDC, said among those missing from the voters’ roll were MDC legislators Evelyn Masaiti and Priscilla Misihairambwi, whose name was only reinstated at the end of last week after political pressure. (IRIN, Financial Gazette)

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