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Zimbabwean opposition official briefly arrested

August 8, 2018
Associated Press

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — A senior Zimbabwean opposition official was arrested briefly while trying to cross into Zambia, lawyers said Wednesday, as concerns rose over a government crackdown after last week's disputed presidential election.

The arrest of Tendai Biti followed scenes of the military opening fire in the streets of Zimbabwe's capital a week ago and growing opposition claims of harassment. The events further challenged assertions by newly elected President Emmerson Mnangagwa of a "flowering" of democracy after longtime leader Robert Mugabe stepped down in November under military pressure.

Circumstances of Biti's release were not immediately clear, said his lawyer, Denford Halimani, who confirmed he was on Zambian soil and seeking asylum "on an urgent basis." Zimbabwean police did not comment.

Biti, who was finance minister in an uneasy coalition government from 2009 to 2013, is a leading member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, which denounced Mnangagwa's July 30 election victory as fraudulent and vowed to challenge it in court this week.

Biti had declared before official election results were announced Friday that opposition leader Nelson Chamisa had won, a claim also made by Chamisa himself.

"In a normal country, Chamisa would be sworn in right now," Biti told reporters a day after the election.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has said it is illegal to release results before its own official announcement.

Mnangagwa was more restrained during the vote count, saying only that the situation looked positive. However, some reporting in state-run media declared him the winner before the commission did.

The opposition has seven days from the commission's announcement to file a court challenge. Chamisa lawyer Thabani Mpofu said the MDC will file a challenge. That would push back an inauguration that Mnangagwa's administration already had planned for Sunday.

Biti was named along with Chamisa in a search warrant issued last week that said they and several others were suspected of the crimes of "possession of dangerous weapons" and "subversive material" as well as "public violence," according to a copy of the warrant seen by The Associated Press.

Police raided the MDC headquarters Aug. 2, a day after the military rolled into Harare and dispersed opposition protesters by force, killing six people. They had been angered over the announcement that Mnangagwa's ZANU-PF party had won most of the seats in parliament.

"We condemn the murders of compatriots. We call for restraint," Biti tweeted after the crackdown, although he has been silent since then.

Biti's arrest and the crackdown by the security services "have exacerbated an already volatile situation and do not lend to a constructive solution," said Piers Pigou, senior consultant for southern Africa for the International Crisis Group.

"This raises further concerns about the direction the government is moving at a time it needs to be providing leadership for all Zimbabweans," he said.

International election observers and Human Rights Watch condemned the violence and intimidation of opposition supporters that continued into this week, urging security forces to use restraint. Mnangagwa badly needs the approval of the foreign election observers to show the balloting was credible, so that international sanctions against the southern African nation could be lifted.

Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe was dogged by charges of rigged and fraudulent elections, along with violence against opposition figures. In one of the most famous incidents, prominent opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai suffered a fractured skull and internal bleeding in 2007 when he and other leaders of his MDC party were arrested and beaten. He died of cancer earlier this year at age 65.

Biti, one of the most vocal government critics, had said months before the election that the Zimbabwean military was casting a shadow over hopes for genuine reform.

He said that while the ouster of Mugabe after 37 years in power was welcome, the military takeover that led to his resignation set a dangerous precedent for the involvement of generals in civilian affairs.

"The genie is out of the bottle," Biti said at a forum on Zimbabwe held in Johannesburg in June.

"We had a coup in November," Biti said at the time. "We didn't seek to understand what it meant and we didn't carry out political reform to make sure that another coup does not happen."

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