Zimbabwe lawyer, editor arrested

The editor of an independent newspaper and a prominent human rights lawyer have been arrested, and Zimbabwe’s largest farm union said on Thursday that 40 000 farm workers have been displaced in post-election violence.

Davison Maruziva, editor of the Standard newspaper, was taken by police from the newspaper’s offices on Thursday, the paper’s publisher said. And Harrison Nkomo, lawyer, was arrested in central Harare on Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said. Police could not be reached for comment.

Maruziva was accused of publishing “false statements prejudicial to the state,” said Iden Wetherell, group editor of the Standard, published on Sundays, and its sister paper, the Zimbabwe Independent business and political weekly.

Nkomo faces charges of “insulting or undermining the authority of the head of state,” Human Rights Watch said.

Maruziva, a veteran Zimbabwean journalist who is in his fifties, was also accused of contempt of court for publishing an article by opposition leader Arthur Mutamabara in the Standard on April 20.

Mutamabara harshly criticised the election and wrote of irregularities in the conduct of the March 29 election by President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, the courts and judicial officials.
He also accused Mugabe of betraying the nation’s independence and coercing voters through violence and vote rigging, leaving the opposition “bludgeoned and brutalised”.

“This latest arrest represents a most serious attack on press and political freedom in Zimbabwe,” Wetherell said in a statement.

Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the arrest of Nkomo “may signal the government’s escalation of its crackdown on perceived opponents”.

Nkomo is the first lawyer arrested for alleged opposition activities in a crackdown that began after the March 29 elections, although others have been harassed.

He recently secured bail for two journalists, one of whom works for the opposition. It was while representing these clients that Nkomo allegedly told a staff member at the attorney general’s office, a nephew of Mugabe, that Mugabe should leave office, the New York-based watchdog said in a statement.

A 2002 law makes it a crime in Zimbabwe to criticise the president or his office.

As Zimbabwe awaits word on when a presidential run-off will be held, opposition party supporters are increasingly under attack.

It took Zimbabwe’s electoral commission more than a month to announce results from the March 29 first round of voting. Independent rights activists have accused the ruling party of using that time to mount a campaign of violence and intimidation to undermine support for the opposition before a run-off.

More attacks have been reported since May 2, when electoral officials announced that Movement for Democratic Change president Morgan Tsvangirai won the most votes March 29, but not the majority needed to avoid a run-off with Mugabe.

In the time since March 29, militia groups have driven 40 000 workers off farms and into the bush in an effort to prevent them from voting in the run-off, according to a report released in Johannesburg by the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe.

In the election, Mugabe lost much of his traditional rural support to Tsvangirai. But by intimidating and displacing enough farm workers, Zanu-PF loyalists might be able to win the run-off, the union said.

John Worsley-Worswick, the head of the Justice for Agriculture Trust, an advocacy group, said at the same news conference that attacks on farm workers have escalated in the past week.

The report details beatings, burned huts, and intimidation. One former farm worker was beaten with iron bars and sticks, and another farmer was strangled with a wire, the group said.

Worsley-Worswick said the majority of the perpetrators were young and wore military clothing.

The two organizations said 142 farms had been invaded since the election. The Mashonaland provinces in the north of the country have been hit hardest by the violence. Many of the 400 remaining white commercial farmers have also been assaulted.

The often-violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms that began in 2000 were billed as designed to help poor black Zimbabweans, but many of the beneficiaries were instead Mugabe’s cronies. Disruptions in the critical agriculture sector have led to an economic collapse in Zimbabwe.

“The world is focused on white farmers, and that is by design of the regime. We were decoys for a far more sinister programme,” said Worsley-Worswick, who is white.

Meanwhile, a Zimbabwean photographer for Reuters, Howard Burditt, has been held by police in Harare for three days for allegedly using a satellite phone to transmit pictures, the agency said in a statement.

He has not been charged yet.

David Schlesinger, Reuters editor-in-chief called for Burditt’s immediate release, saying the agency has always complied with Zimbabwean media regulations. - Sapa-AP

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