Zim opposition legal bid postponed

A Zimbabwe court postponed a legal bid by the opposition to force the release of presidential election results on Saturday, after the electoral commission asked for more time to prepare its response.

Earlier, armed police briefly prevented lawyers from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) from entering the High Court, although they were later allowed in.

The opposition believes a long delay in issuing results from the election a week ago masks attempts by President Robert Mugabe to buy time for a fightback.

His ruling Zanu-PF party lost control of Parliament in the election for the first time in his 28-year rule.

MDC lawyer Andrew Makoni said the case had been postponed until noon local time on Sunday because the electoral commission had wanted more time to prepare its counter-argument.

Makoni and another opposition lawyer, Alec Muchadehama, were prevented from entering the court by police—apparently from Mugabe’s offices across the road.

“We can’t go in. They are threatening to shoot. They are saying no one enters the court,” Muchadehama told reporters.

The MDC says its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, defeated Mugabe and should be declared president of Zimbabwe, where economic collapse has reduced many of the people to misery.

Projections by the ruling Zanu-PF party and independent monitors suggest that when the result is eventually announced, Tsvangirai will fall short of the absolute majority needed to avoid a second round.

There are strong signs that Mugabe’s government is preparing for a counter-offensive after the biggest setback of his rule.

Run-off preparations

The veteran president had looked wounded earlier in the week when Zanu-PF suffered its first election defeat.
But a meeting of the party’s politburo resolved on Friday he would fight a run-off against Tsvangirai.

Party officials alleged widespread MDC bribery of electoral officials and said they would legally challenge the results in 16 constituencies, enough to overturn the result if successful.

Under electoral law a presidential run-off must be held three weeks after results are released. So the longer the results take, the more time Zanu-PF has to organise.

Analysts believe Mugabe will use his control of state apparatus, including the security forces, as well as pro-government militias to intimidate MDC supporters.

Former colonial ruler Britain and the United States, both of whom have applied sanctions on Mugabe and his top officials, have criticised the election delay and suggested it could be the precursor to a rigged result.

Thabo Mbeki, president of regional power South Africa, told the international community to wait for the full election results and said it was not time for action.

“I think the situation for now is manageable,” Mbeki told reporters as he arrived at a conference of “progressive governance” leaders near London.

Mbeki led unsuccessful regional mediation attempts last year and South Africa is flooded with Zimbabwean economic refugees.

The government-run Herald newspaper reported on Saturday a provincial elections officer had been arrested in Zimbabwe’s Midlands region over charges that some polling stations had inflated vote tallies for the MDC and recorded lower votes for Mugabe and Zanu-PF candidates.

“Zanu-PF in the province say they are checking every ward as they suspect a wider conspiracy,” it said.

The hardening of Zanu-PF’s position has punctured optimism among Mugabe’s critics inside and outside the country that he would stand down, clearing the way for economic reconstruction.

Zimbabwe has the world’s highest rate of inflation at more than 100 000%, chronic food and fuel shortages and 80% unemployment. A quarter of the population has fled abroad.

The MDC said in advertisements placed in South African newspapers on Saturday that it wanted peace.

“At this stage we offer the hand of peace to the current regime, and will recognise and respect their rights if the transition is expedited without further ado, but this offer will not remain open indefinitely,” the MDC said.

Meanwhile, lawyers for a British and an American journalist languishing in a Zimbabwean jail tried on Saturday to lodge a legal bid for their release at the High Court but were turned away.

New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak (58) and a 45-year-old journalist from Britain were picked up at a Harare guest house on Thursday and later charged with illegally reporting Zimbabwe’s general elections.

Their lawyers say the Attorney General has decided there is no case against the journalists and went to the High Court on Saturday to deliver an urgent application calling for police to release them immediately.

But they were cleared away from the building.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that their correspondent had been recharged with “falsely presenting himself as a journalist” after police realised that an earlier charge of working without accreditation was outdated.—Reuters, AFP

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