HARARE, Zimbabwe — Police brought the Zimbabwe opposition’s No. 2 leader to court last Saturday, the first time he had been seen in public since plainclothes officers hustled him off a plane as he arrived back in the country.
Police have said Tendai Biti, secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), will be charged with treason, which can carry the death penalty. They had refused to say where he was being held or allow his lawyers to see him since his June 12 arrest, and responded only grudgingly to a High Court judge’s order to produce him.
Biti’s arrest has added to concerns about the coming presidential runoff between MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and longtime ruler Robert Mugabe. The campaign has seen brutal attacks on opposition supporters, arrests of other key opposition figures and repeated interruptions of Tsvangirai’s attempts to campaign.
Party spokesman Nqobizitha Mlilo called the treason charges “politically motivated.”
Mlilo said Biti’s lawyers had no opportunity to speak with him. Police showed Justice Ben Hlatshwayo an arrest warrant they said a lower court judge had issued earlier this month as justification for holding Biti, Mlilo said. Hlatshwayo said police should bring Biti before the lower court judge Monday and allowed them to return him to jail.
Biti did not make his scheduled Monday appearance, and had not yet been asked by police to make a formal written “warned and cautioned” statement, needed before he can be arraigned, according to opposition lawyer Lewis Uriri.
Uriri said police have also added two extra charges under the security laws — insulting the president and making statements intended to bring about disaffection in the police and security forces, both carrying the penalty of imprisonment or fine.
The opposition said in a statement that Tsvangirai was again detained by police last Saturday as he campaigned in rural Zimbabwe. He and 11 others on his campaign team were stopped at a roadblock and taken to a police station, where they were held for about five hours before being released, Mlilo said.
“It is clearly impossible to talk about free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, and to suggest otherwise is to be clearly blind to the grave harassment, intimidation and violence that the people of Zimbabwe have had to endure over the past few years,” the party statement said, calling on Zimbabwe’s neighbors to intervene.
Tsvangirai came first in a field of four in the first round of presidential voting March 29, but according to official figures did not win the 50 percent plus one vote required to avoid a runoff.
Police say the treason charge Biti faces stems from a transition document they claim is a blueprint for regime change. He is also accused of spreading false information for releasing the opposition’s own tally from the first round of elections — under Zimbabwean law, only election officials can release results.
Tsvangirai himself was acquitted of treason in 2004 after a trial that lasted more than a year.(p2)
In its report, Human Rights Watch said it had documented 36 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries at the hands of Mugabe party militants backed by the police and army, but that the real figures may be much higher. More »
Movement for Democratic Change Party head Morgan Tsvangirai has survived three assassination attempts, including one in 1997 by unidentified assailants who tried to throw him from a 10th floor office window. More »
After first stopping to visit hospitalized supporters who had been targeted in an onslaught of state-sponsored violence, Tsvangirai called on the increasingly autocratic Mugabe to "set his people free from poverty, hunger and fear" by stepping down. More »