Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Zimbabwe Opposition Leader Appears in Court

Source: New York Times.

Published: March 13, 2007.

JOHANNESBURG, March 13 — Limping and missing part of his hair, apparently because of a head wound, the Zimbabwe political opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai appeared in a Harare court today after being jailed and beaten for his role in a banned anti-government meeting.

He was later taken from the court to a hospital under police guard, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Tsvangirai was joined in court by scores of other opposition activists and leaders, some also injured, who had been swept up by the authorities on Sunday when riot police violently broke up the planned meeting in a poor southern Harare neighborhood called Highfields. One man was shot and killed by police.

The European Union and the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, joined the United States today in condemning the crackdown on the activists.

In a written statement, the United Nations human rights commissioner, Louise Arbour, cited “shocking reports of police abuse” and called for an inquiry by Zimbabwe’s government into the violence.

The State Department earlier had called the violence brutal and unwarranted.

The Zimbabwean government of President Robert G. Mugabe did not immediately respond to the criticism.

Its crackdown on political dissent spread today to one of Mr. Mugabe’s sharpest critics, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, whose offices were raided by the government secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization.

Mr. Mugabe’s authoritarian regime has come under increasing pressure in recent months, as inflation has soared and staple commodities have vanished from store shelves. According to the official estimate, which some economists say is conservative, the annual inflation rate in Zimbabwe now exceeds 1,700 percent.

On Monday, police officers remained present in force in the Highfield neighborhood of Harare, the capital, where the rally was to have taken place on Sunday, as well as in the city’s center, witnesses said.

The heavy police presence underscored the government’s determination to contain what many opposition figures and analysts say is growing unrest in the face of economic collapse.

The court appearance by opposition leaders and activists today came after the government ignored an earlier order by the nation’s High Court to allow lawyers and doctors to talk to and examine the imprisoned activists.

A second High Court order issued late on Monday demanded that the activists either be charged with offenses or released by midday today.

Mr. Tsvangirai and a second opposition leader, Arthur Mutambara, stood side by side in the courtroom today, news agencies reported, before the police cleared spectators from the building and sealed it off.

The two men lead rival factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, the only substantial and active opposition party in a nation dominated by Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.

Mr. Tsvangirai’s lawyer, Innocent Chagonda, told reporters that his client was seriously injured and in need of medical care, news agencies reported.

Mr. Tsvangirai appeared to have a head wound, and one of his eyes was swollen nearly shut, according to journalists who saw him in the courtroom before being expelled.

Another prominent civic leader, Lovemore Madhuku of the National Constitutional Assembly, was reported to be in serious condition in a Harare hospital with a fractured arm and head injuries.

Zimbabwe government officials called for the public to remain calm and accused the activists of plotting violence against the police and ordinary citizens alike.

The spokesman for Zimbabwe’s national police, Wayne Bvudzijena, said on Monday that he did not know how many people were arrested when the meeting was broken up, nor whether anyone was injured. If there were any injuries, he said, they probably stemmed from efforts to resist arrest.

“We’ve got confirmation that they are hired to go about and commit violence,” Mr. Bvudzijena said of the arrested activists in a telephone interview. “I wouldn’t know about their being injured in police custody, but the situation yesterday was that whether they were M.D.C. youths or others, they were attacking the police, resisting arrest.”

The rally in Highfield on Sunday, a rare joint effort by Zimbabwe’s feuding opposition groups, had been billed as a prayer meeting, apparently to bypass a government ban on rallies. Three weeks earlier, riot police had crushed a much larger antigovernment demonstration, but only after widespread street violence and injuries.

The police took few chances this time, cordoning off all routes into Highfield as early as two days before the meeting. Protesters who tried to enter the neighborhood were arrested, and the 200 or so who managed to gather near the rally site, a sports field, were arrested or driven away.

The police shot and killed one protester. Mr. Bvudzijena said the man had been leading a crowd that was throwing stones and other objects at the riot police. Three police officers were injured in the disturbance, he said.

On Monday, the nation’s High Court ordered the police to allow lawyers access to Mr. Tsvangirai, Reuters reported. Before then, lawyers were not allowed to talk to any of the jailed protesters, said Beatrice Mtetwa, an attorney for some of the activists, and Alec Muchadehama, a lawyer for Mr. Tsvangirai.

Mr. Muchadehama said that the police allowed a second lawyer to see Mr. Tsvangirai at a distance, and that the activist leader seemed to have suffered a deep head wound.

Mr. Madhuku surrendered peacefully to the police on Sunday afternoon, the official of his organization said. “We have not been able to talk to him,” the official said, “but we can only speculate that his injuries happened in his cell, because he didn’t have much resistance to his arrest.”

The violence drew a sharp response from a spokesman at the State Department, who said the United States was shocked by the reports of injuries to protesters.

“This is unfortunately, again, just another example of the increasingly harsh treatment that those wishing to express opposition political views face under President Mugabe,” said a department spokesman, Tom Casey.

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