Mugabe Foes Vow To Intensify Action

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

JOHANNESBURG, March 12 -- Zimbabwe's opposition vowed Monday to continue ratcheting up pressure on President Robert Mugabe, as their most prominent leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, sat in prison with serious head injuries that have left him struggling to walk, talk or eat.

"The world can expect more intensified action following the brutalization of . . . the leadership," said Eliphas Mukonoweshuro, a senior official with Tsvangirai's opposition party, speaking by telephone from Harare, the capital. "This is not going to stop."

Tsvangirai was among dozens of opposition activists arrested Sunday at a political meeting in a township west of Harare. Police fatally shot one activist during the assault, and many others suffered beatings in jail cells where they were taken, opposition leaders said.

It was the most violent clash in years between Zimbabwe's resurgent opposition and the government of Mugabe, who has ruled the nation since the end of white supremacist rule in 1980.

Mugabe is seeking to stay in office despite a seven-year-long economic collapse and rising political unrest. He announced plans over the weekend to run for the presidency again in 2008, apparently ending his campaign to have his current term extended to 2010.

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said from Harare that he could not comment on allegations of beatings and torture, nor could he give the number of opposition activists arrested. He said the jailed leaders, including Tsvangirai, will be charged with instigating violence and will have a public court appearance by Wednesday morning.

Reinforced police patrols, including 150 members of a paramilitary team, moved throughout Harare on Monday to maintain order, Bvudzijena said. He blamed Sunday's violence on opposition party activists, who he said violated a prohibition on political meetings. Three police officers were hospitalized with injuries.

Opposition leaders said trouble began when they gathered for the launch of a "Save Zimbabwe" campaign event Sunday morning. Though billed as a prayer meeting, the function attracted most of the nation's top opposition figures before police broke it up with mass arrests, water cannons and tear gas.

U.S. and British officials denounced the crackdown. "It is absolutely uncalled for and unfortunately certainly representative of the repressive nature of the Mugabe government that peaceful efforts to organize political groups and public demonstrations are suppressed and suppressed so brutally," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington, according to the Reuters news agency.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon urged the government to release the detainees, allow peaceful assembly and provide space for legitimate political rights.

Aside from the man shot Sunday, the most seriously injured activist was Tsvangirai, 55, a former trade union leader and presidential candidate of the Movement for Democratic Change. He was acquitted in 2004 on charges of treason.

On Monday, Tsvangirai's left eye was swollen shut and a bandage covered his head where stitches closed a deep gash on his head, said Mukonoweshuro, who learned of his condition through a conversation with Tsvangirai's wife, Susan. She saw him briefly at a government hospital Monday morning.

The police beatings were so severe, Mukonoweshuro said, that Tsvangirai lost consciousness on three occasions. He assured his wife that he would recover but visibly struggled to communicate before police returned him to prison in an unknown location.

"He couldn't walk properly. He couldn't eat properly. He couldn't speak very well," Mukonoweshuro said.

Also injured were Lovemore Madhuku, head of the National Constitutional Assembly, whose arm was broken, and Nelson Chamisa, a member of parliament from Tsvangirai's party, who struggled to stand without assistance, according to party officials. The whereabouts of Arthur Mutambara, head of a rival opposition faction, remained unknown Monday night as lawyers sought court injunctions to gain access to the prisoners. A court ordered the police Monday night to grant access to Tsvangirai, Reuters reported.

While Harare remained calm Monday, unrest broke out in the eastern border city of Mutare, leading to mass arrests, according to opposition officials. Protests and strikes have grown more intense and frequent since September as the country suffers chronic unemployment, shortages of food and fuel, and inflation exceeding 1,700 percent a year.

Despite Sunday's arrests and injuries, opposition leaders appeared more optimistic Monday. Many have long criticized Tsvangirai and his party for not challenging Mugabe more aggressively after years of tainted elections and political repression.

"If people really want to see change in Zimbabwe, then we really should be prepared to lose" more activists, said Raymond Majongwe, head of the Zimbabwe Progressive Teachers Union, speaking from Harare. "If they expect to get democracy on a silver platter, they are fooling themselves. They need to be prepared to have the prisons full."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company