A week of police abuse and denials in Zimbabwe

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The Zimbabwean government has banned the opposition presidential candidate, Tsvangirai, from holding any political rallies three weeks ahead of presidential run-off election.

from our correspondent in Harare

The police told Tsvangirai of the ban, ostensibly over concerns for his safety, when he was arrested for a second time this week while trying to campaign.

But ordinary Zimbabweans view the shocking move as reflecting a growing concern in Mugabe’s camp that its strategy of violence, intimidation and nationalist appeals will not be sufficient to ensure victory in the June 27 vote after Tsvangirai won the first round in March but fell just short of an outright majority.

The ban on opposition rallies came a day after the government barred
international aid agencies, including the United Nations, from working in
Zimbabwe for the duration of the election campaign.

Aid workers said they believed it is also an attempt to prevent them from
witnessing the escalating state-sponsored attacks on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and its supporters in rural areas.

The MDC says more than 60 of its activists and supporters have been murdered by pro-Mugabe militias or security forces and thousands more have been severely beaten.

Tsvangirai was attempting to campaign in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, when he was detained and taken to a police station about 30 kilometers from the city.

He was only released after about two hours but with a warning that he was not permitted to campaign any more, according to his spokesman, George Sibotshiwe. “We are dismayed that our president has not been allowed to access the Zimbabwean people at a crucial stage in this campaign,” he said.

The security forces had already blocked Tsvangirai from holding rallies by
sending soldiers to occupy stadiums booked by the MDC and to intimidate ordinary people into staying away. But the MDC leader had continued to hold small, sometimes impromptu, meetings.

Tsvangirai left the country soon after the first round of voting, and his
party has said he was the target of a military assassination plot. He has
survived at least three previous attempts on his life. Tsvangirai returned
to Zimbabwe in late May to campaign for the runoff.

Sibotshiwe said the claim by police that the formal ban was solely intended to protect Tsvangirai and other MDC leaders was “nonsense” and “a clear indication that the regime will do everything necessary to remain in power”.

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said “people are free to campaign as they choose,” but he said “For now, we are just warning him,” Bvudzijena said, “but sooner or later he might end up being arrested.”

Zanu-PF was clearly shocked after the first round of elections at the inroads Tsvangirai made into the ruling party’s former strongholds, particularly in Mashonaland. The MDC leader had campaigned heavily in rural areas for the first time because of the relative lack of violence compared to other recent elections.

Mugabe has evidently fallen back on violence once again but in banning foreign aid agencies, and detaining British and American diplomats on Thursday, the authorities evidently do not want outside witnesses.
On Thursday, foreign aid organisations were ordered to suspend field work indefinitely. Mugabe this week accused NGOs of acting as a front for western support for the MDC.

The European Union on Friday demanded that Zimbabwe immediately lifts a ban on food relief operations by non-governmental organisations, saying hundreds of thousands of people in the country’s rural areas depended on such aid for survival. “This ban must be lifted right away,” EU Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said in a statement.

“I am deeply distressed to think that hundreds of thousands of people who depend on aid from the European Commission and others for their very survival now face an even more uncertain future.”

An economic recession marked by the world’s highest inflation rate of more than 165 000 percent has exacerbated the food crisis, with the government out of cash to import food, while many families that would normally be able to buy their own food supplies are unable to do so because of an increasingly worthless currency.

Most households – especially the poor in rural areas – now depend on
handouts from foreign governments and relief agencies to feed to survive. Michel said the ban would have serious consequences and meant NGOs and other international relief agencies, many of which operate with European Commission funding, were no longer allowed to provide basic humanitarian care to many of the poorest people.

The European Commission is the most important aid donor to Zimbabwe and last year provided 91 million euros in humanitarian aid and other assistance.

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