/ 12 May 2008

More arrests in Zim as Tsvangirai prepares return

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s government intensified a crackdown against its political opponents on Monday, as the leader of the opposition prepared to return home to contest a run-off election.

Journalists, union leaders and hundreds of political activists have been arrested since general elections in March that were lost by the ruling party, but Monday brought news of the first lawmaker to be taken into police custody.

Heya Shoko, a Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) parliamentarian who won a seat in the Masvingo province formerly held by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, was arrested in connection with post-election violence in his constituency, a colleague said.

“I was with him in town when three detectives … took him away saying it was in connection with some incidents in his constituency,” fellow MDC lawmaker Ernest Mudavanhu said by phone from Masvingo, south-east Zimbabwe.

News of the arrest came as the president and secretary general of the country’s main labour organisation, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), were denied bail as they made a first court appearance on charges of incitement to rebellion in connection with speeches delivered at a May Day rally.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the former head of the ZCTU, is expected to return home this week after more than a month outside the country since he beat Mugabe in the presidential election but fell just short of an overall majority.

Announcing his return on Saturday, Tsvangirai said he would only participate in the run-off if there was a complete end to violence, a revamp of the electoral commission and the deployment of international peacekeepers and foreign observers.

However, the government has ruled out any suggestion that Western observers will oversee the voting for the as yet unscheduled run-off and said the MDC leader had no reason to fear for his safety.

“If indeed there was a threat to his life, we have got law-enforcement agents,” Bright Matonga, the Deputy Information Minister, said.

“He has never told us he ran away from any kind of danger and as far as we know he is on holiday, at the same time trying to drum up support for his campaign to demonise Zimbabwe.”

Tsvangirai, who is threatened by a treason charge, was badly beaten in police custody in March last year.

Mugabe’s Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, said the government would not succumb to pressure from the opposition to invite certain international observers, and Western countries that have imposed sanctions are not welcome.

“We will think favourably of them if they lift sanctions. Until they do that, there is no basis to have any relationship with them,” the state-run Herald daily quoted Chinamasa as saying.

No Western monitors were allowed to oversee the first ballot and a team from the Southern African Development Community was widely criticised for giving it a largely clean bill of health before any results were released.

Zimbabwean doctors, trade unions and teachers have reported beatings and intimidation by government-backed militias since the first ballot on March 29 and the MDC says 32 of its supporters have been killed.

Results from the first-round presidential poll were delayed by the electoral commission for five weeks and no date has been given for the run-off, even though the law says it should take place within 21 days of the first-round results being announced.

Mugabe, in power since the country’s independence in 1980, lost by 43,2% to 47,9% to Tsvangirai in the first presidential poll.

The United States and European Union imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe after Mugabe allegedly rigged his 2002 re-election. The measures include a travel ban against more than 100 top government officials, as well as the freezing of assets and a ban on arms sales.

Mugabe has blamed the sanctions for his country’s economic down spiral characterised by inflation exceeding 165 000%, 80% unemployment and a critical shortage of food, fuel and other basic commodities. — AFP