By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 20, 2006
JOHANNESBURG, May 19 -- Zimbabwean police arrested a top opposition leader and 70 supporters Friday and held them for more than seven hours for allegedly violating the nation's restrictive law against most forms of political activity.
Arthur Mutambara, president of one of two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, was campaigning with his faction's candidate for Saturday's special election in a suburb of Harare, the capital, when police arrested them at 8 a.m., according to party officials.
"We've just been arrested," Mutambara said in a phone interview from a police station yard where heavily armed officers had the party activists confined.
Zimbabwe's Public Order and Security Act bars political meetings of any size without the written approval of police four days before an event. The law makes door-to-door campaigning essentially impossible, and police, who are under the tight control of President Robert Mugabe, often deny applications even for rallies planned long in advance. Among the possible penalties is jail time.
David Coltart, an opposition member of parliament, said that despite frequent arrests since the law was passed in 2002, police have never taken a case to court. It is used instead, he said, to justify arrests intended to hinder political activity by those who do not support Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since it won independence in 1980.
"It is clearly a law applied very cynically by the regime to act as a deterrent and to provide a considerable obstruction to campaigning," said Coltart, speaking from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city.
Police have increasingly used Zimbabwe's repressive laws to stifle dissent, shutting down independent newspapers, arresting protesters and, in 2002, charging another opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, with treason. He was acquitted of the charge, which carried the possibility of a death sentence, in 2004.
The Movement for Democratic Change split into two bitterly opposed factions last year, with Tsvangirai leading one and Mutambara leading the other.
On Friday morning, Mutambara was campaigning in the poor, densely populated suburb of Budiriro for a legislative seat made vacant by the death in February of an opposition lawmaker. Saturday's election includes candidates from Mutambara's faction, Tsvangirai's faction and Mugabe's ruling party.
Mutambara's candidate, Gabriel Chaibva, was among those arrested Friday, as was Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, one of the faction's members of parliament.
Party spokesman Maxwell Zimuto, also speaking from the police station yard in Harare, said the party applied on Monday to hold a campaign rally on Thursday, but police refused because Mugabe was having a rally that day. Zimuto said police gave oral approval for the rally to be held on Friday, but party members received no written documentation of that decision.
Mutambara and his supporters began at 7:15 a.m. to drive through Budiriro in a caravan of eight cars and trucks emblazoned with campaign posters. They also handed out fliers and, in one of the trucks, sang political songs. When they passed a police station 45 minutes later, Zimuto said, several officers came into the street to stop them.
They were released at 3:30 p.m. and resumed their mobile political rally. Mutambara and the others are due to appear in court on Monday, party officials said.
"The whole thing they did was criminal," Mutambara said after being released.
Earlier this week, Mugabe cracked down on other protesters and expelled Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, from Zimbabwe. Vavi has been critical of Mugabe.
About 100 demonstrators were arrested by Zimbabwean police on Thursday. Major rallies were scheduled as well on Monday to remember the first anniversary of Operation Murambatsvina, translated as "Drive Out the Rubbish," in which 700,000 poor Zimbabweans saw their homes or businesses destroyed by rampaging police.