Zimbabwe Opposition Fears Crackdown as MDC Party Leader Arrested

The Associated Press
AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazh

Tendai Biti, former finance minister of Zimbabwe and a leader in the opposition Movement for Democrat Change (MDC) party, was arrested on the Zambian border Wednesday.

Biti is one of the MDC officials who has declared challenger Nelson Chamisa the true winner of the recent presidential election, which secured a full term in office for interim President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Biti predicted Mnangagwa would steal the election and maintains his prediction came true. He and his lawyer were detained at the Zambian border on charges of inciting violence and violating Zimbabwe’s election laws by announcing the results before they were certified. The election violence Biti is accused of provoking claimed at least six lives in the capital city of Harare.  

Biti reportedly sought asylum in Zambia, but his request was denied. The BBC reported quite a scene at the Zambian border:

The opposition politician shouted out for help and about 300 Zimbabwean travelers blocked their government’s security officers from making an arrest, the report says.

Zambian officials then intervened and threatened to arrest the Zimbabwean officers for “executing their mandate on Zambian soil.”

Zambia’s foreign minister told the BBC that Mr. Biti’s grounds for asylum were “not meritorious.”

Biti was released after a few hours and resumed work on his application for asylum in Zambia, according to his lawyer.

The Zimbabwean opposition is very nervous about the prospect of a crackdown by Mnangagwa, who accumulated considerable experience in crackdowns while working for the longtime dictator that he would eventually turn against and help depose, Robert Mugabe.

The UK Guardian said on Wednesday that it has gathered “dozens of testimonies” from MDC leaders and activists who have been harassed by security forces since the election:

At the weekend, soldiers moved through neighborhoods of Harare and surrounding towns, targeting opposition supporters, smashing property and assaulting dozens of people.

Last week the homes of leaders were surrounded by unidentified masked and armed men during the night, and homes of activists were invaded by gangs shouting pro-government slogans.

In the past 48 hours, dozens of independent media activists have gone into hiding, along with several NGO workers fearful of detention.

“The army has a list and I am on it,” said one student leader who told his mother he might never see her again. Another MDC voter said he lost a tooth when a truckload of soldiers rolled into his poor neighborhood and instructed members of the opposition party to identify themselves. A third said he might lose an eye from the beating he received.

Biti said he went into hiding after the election and complained his family was harassed by “fascists and murderers” loyal to Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF party.

International observers hoped for political stability in Zimbabwe and took a generally optimistic view of the first post-Mugabe presidential election, while noting a few troubling signs of media bias and procedural irregularities. On Tuesday, observers from the EU, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States issued a statement of “grave concern” over “the eruption of violence and occurrence of serious human rights violations” following the election.

The statement specifically condemned the Zimbabwean government’s treatment of the opposition:

The Heads of Mission condemn the violence, attacks, and acts of intimidation targeted at opposition leaders and supporters. These human rights violations have no place in a democratic society and contravene the fundamental tenets of international human rights standards.

The Heads of Mission urge the government to respect the rights of the Zimbabwean people as enshrined in the Constitution. All allegations of incitement to violence or violent acts, as well as vandalism and destruction of property, should be investigated in accordance with the rule of law, and perpetrators held legally responsible.

The Heads of Mission welcome the President’s commitment to establish an independent commission to investigate the violence against civilians and look forward to the commission starting its work as soon as possible and reporting its findings in a transparent manner.

The Heads of Mission call on the Government to ensure that the Zimbabwean Defence Forces act with restraint, in full respect of international human rights norms and their constitutional role.

A correspondent for the UK Independent suggested on Monday that Mnangagwa and his top officials might not be fully aware that security forces are roughing up members of the opposition. The theory is that Mnangagwa has little to gain by brutalizing the opposition because independent watchdogs and foreign monitors quickly endorsed his election victory. A crackdown could only dilute that support and shake international faith in the validity of the election, as indeed seems to be happening now.

The president-elect has promised a full investigation of post-election violence, as the EU and U.S. missions indicated in their statement.

The commanders of the Zimbabwean police and military lodged countercharges in a statement on Wednesday, accusing MDC supporters of attacking police officers and soldiers on patrol. They said the homes of two soldiers have been vandalized since the election.

“The Zimbabwe Defence Forces and Zimbabwe Republic Police wish to inform the nation that we have noted with concern media messages and footage detailing alleged assaults by soldiers. We wish therefore to categorically state that we condemn all forms of violence in whatever form and assure the nation that any such cases which have been brought to the attention of the police will be investigated without fear or favor,” the statement said.

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