Zimbabwe opposition leader charged after asylum bid fails

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Senior Zimbabwean opposition figure Tendai Biti has been charged with inciting public violence and declaring unofficial election results, as fears grew about a government crackdown following the disputed July 30 election.

The court appearance followed dramatic events in which Mr Biti fled to Zambia, was denied asylum and was handed over to Zimbabwean security forces in defiance of a Zambian court order. Western diplomats, including the US and the UN refugee agency, quickly expressed concern.

“We will keep on fighting,” Mr Biti said as he arrived at court in the capital, Harare.

The charge of inciting public violence could bring up to a decade in prison, while the charge of declaring unofficial election results carries a maximum six-month sentence.

He was granted bail but must surrender his passport, report to authorities twice a day and not address political rallies.

Tendai Biti
Mr Biti attempted to claim asylum in Zambia (AP)

Shortly after Mr Biti’s hearing, Mr Mnangagwa said he had been released “following my intervention,” without giving details. In a series of posts on Twitter, the president said the case would continue “due to the serious nature of the allegations.” He called on all parties to cease incitement and violence.

In a letter to Zimbabwean police, Mr Biti’s lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa alleged that they and military police “unlawfully abducted” Mr Biti from Zambia and “maliciously damaged” the tyres of a legal practitioner trying to follow their unmarked vehicles back to Harare.

The letter says Mr Biti should be immediately returned to Zambian immigration authorities, and “due to the traditional torture that abductees are generally subjected to in Zimbabwe” it called for a medical team to check him before then.

Zambian border guards handed Mr Biti over despite a court order saying he should not be deported until his appeal for asylum was heard, Zambian lawyer Gilbert Phiri said. Zambia’s foreign minister said Mr Biti’s reasons for seeking asylum “did not have merit”.

Tendai Biti
Mr Biti’s detention has sparked fears of a crackdown on opposition figures despite reform calls (AP)

The US State Department said the US had “convoked” the ambassadors of Zimbabwe and Zambia “to register our gravest concerns” and would review its cooperation with Zambia’s government.

A joint statement by the heads of missions in Zimbabwe of the European Union, the United States, Canada and Australia urgently called on Zimbabwean authorities to guarantee Mr Biti’s safety and respect his rights. Diplomats from the US and Britain attended his hearing along with EU election observers.

“This is a worrying development,” said David Coltart, a fellow member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and a human rights lawyer who said Mr Biti was arrested in 2008 on a similar charge and “brutally tortured”.

Tendai Biti
The Movement for Democratic Change has said the elections were flawed and fraudulent (AP)

The day after Mr Biti’s remarks, the military opened fire to disperse opposition protesters in the streets of Harare, killing six people. Western election observers, whose endorsement of a credible election is badly needed for the lifting of international sanctions on Zimbabwe, condemned the “excessive” force.

While Mr Mnangagwa has hailed a “flowering” of democracy since Mr Mugabe stepped down in November under military pressure, alarm has been growing about the role of the security forces and who controls them.

The state-run Herald newspaper in an “editorial comment” said Mr Biti “sneaked into Zambia in a bid to evade the law”.

Under Mr Mugabe’s 37 years in power, Zimbabwe was dogged by charges of rigged and fraudulent elections, along with violence against opposition figures.

Mr Biti, one of the most outspoken critics of the government, was quick to warn that while the ouster of Mr Mugabe was welcome, the military takeover that led to his resignation set a dangerous precedent for its involvement in civilian affairs.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Mr Biti said in June.

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