Monday, March 19, 2007

Zimbabwe bans foreign travel by leading government critics

Michael Wines:

Zimbabwe's crackdown on the nation's political opposition has expanded to block foreign travel by leading government critics, and one official of the main opposition party was severely beaten while en route to Harare's airport for a flight to Brussels.

Nelson Chamisa, the spokesman for the largest faction of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, was stopped and beaten with iron bars by four assailants as he tried to drive to the airport late Saturday, a party official, William Bango, told news services in Harare. Chamisa was headed to Brussels for a meeting with European Union officials.

Chamisa was reported to have suffered a fractured skull and a crushed eye socket. He was among scores of opposition activists whom the riot police arrested and beat March 11 as the activists sought to stage an anti-government prayer meeting south of Harare.

Those who attacked Chamisa on Saturday were not identified, but his faction of the Movement for Democratic Change charged that Zimbabwe's espionage service, the Central Intelligence Organization, was behind the attack.

Separately, the Zimbabwean police arrested the leader of a smaller faction of the opposition party, Arthur Mutambara, as he sought to leave Harare to fly to South Africa. Mutambara was charged with inciting public violence.

Two other anti-government activists who were seriously injured in the March 11 beatings, Grace Kwinje and Sekai Holland, were stopped as they sought to fly to South Africa to seek medical treatment.

Zimbabwe's political stability has deteriorated in recent weeks in lockstep with its economy, now plagued by ever- steeper inflation and worsening shortages of basic commodities.

The annual inflation rate is now more than 1,700 percent and the black market value of Zimbabwe's dollar plunged 57 percent last week alone, to 17,500 for one American dollar.

Rising public dismay over the economic collapse has emboldened Zimbabwe's usually fractious political opposition, which has united in a "Save Zimbabwe Campaign" aimed at toppling President Robert Mugabe. Both factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, which split last year into two bitterly divided camps, have thrown their weight behind the campaign.

Mugabe's response was to ban most political gatherings and to respond with force to anyone who tried to defy that ban. The March 11 attack on anti-government activists sent at least 50 protesters to hospitals, including the leader of the main faction of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai.

The government-controlled Herald newspaper quoted Mugabe on Saturday as threatening to expel Western diplomats who supported his opponents and to send police to "bash" any activists who fomented violence.

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