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Mugabe foe detained for 9 hours

Zimbabwe's opposition leader denies breaking a security law during a campaign stop.

June 05, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was held for nine hours by police Wednesday and formally warned for allegedly breaching a security law after a campaign visit to a small town in western Zimbabwe.

The detention came as the government toughened a security crackdown on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, just weeks before the June 27 presidential runoff election. Tsvangirai, a candidate in the election, had to sign a statement acknowledging that he had been cautioned for breaching the Public Order and Security Act.

His spokesman, George Sibotshiwe, who was present at the police station in Lupane, said Tsvangirai broke no laws.

"He just walked around Lupane. POSA does not prevent any Zimbabwean from walking anywhere," he said. Sibotshiwe said police also seized Tsvangirai's security vehicle.

He said it was apparent from phone calls at the station that the police action was driven by Zimbabwean Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri, a hard-line supporter of President Robert Mugabe, who announced before the March 29 first-round balloting in the presidential race that he would never take orders from Tsvangirai.

The opposition candidate said he won the March election outright, but the election commission credited him with about 48% of the vote to Mugabe's 43%, forcing a runoff.

As part of the security crackdown, the Mugabe regime recently suspended several key aid organizations, stepped up attacks on opposition activists and jailed drivers caught with unregistered broadcast equipment from Britain's Sky News.

Amnesty International condemned Tsvangirai's detention, saying it was part of "a sudden, sharp and dangerous crackdown on political opposition in the run-up to the elections."

Before his arrest, Tsvangirai said in the city of Bulawayo that Mugabe was clearly determined to cling to power against the will of the people.

"Mugabe is determined to turn the whole country into a war zone in order to subvert the will of the people and steal the June 27 election by any means possible," he said.

Mugabe has repeatedly said that the ruling ZANU-PF party will never allow Tsvangirai to become president.

In March 2007, Tsvangirai was arrested on his way to a prayer meeting and was later hospitalized after being severely beaten by police. He also has survived several assassination plots and two charges of treason, which carries the death penalty.

The latest action against Tsvangirai came as the opposition reported that two more of its activists died in an attack Tuesday in the central Zimbabwe town of Jerera. The opposition MDC estimates that 67 of its followers have been slain since the March election.

An opposition activist in Masvingo, Jerry Whitehead, told The Times in a telephone interview that seven activists working on the election campaign were sleeping in the opposition offices in Jerera when armed men burst in about midnight Tuesday and started shooting. He said the attackers poured gasoline on the activists, set them afire and fled.

Whitehead said that two activists died and that five were hospitalized with burns and gunshot wounds.

He said some of the same activists were run off the road several days earlier by an unmarked vehicle with no registration plates and forced to abandon their car and flee. Similar attacks were occurring in Chiredzi, about 60 miles south of Jerera.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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