Tsvangerai in new treason charge
ZIMBABWEAN opposition leader Morgan Tsvangerai was yesterday arrested and now faces treason charges for the second time in two years, as a week-long series of protests, strikes and stoppages failed to topple Robert Mugabe.
The opposition leader, who had called for the challenge to Mr Mugabe’s increasingly despotic and chaotic rule, was held as an unprecedented show of force effectively cleared the streets of protesters in the main cities.
The apparent failure of the five-day protest will pose a new challenge to Zimbabwe’s neighbours, in particular Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president, over whether and how Mr Mugabe can be eased from power as Zimbabwe’s economy crumbles.
In April Mr Mugabe, 79, who became prime minister 23 years ago, hinted he might be ready to step aside. But he vowed not to cede anything to Mr Tsvangerai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
In what was described as the biggest police, military and paramilitary operation since independence from Britain in 1980, military helicopters swooped over Harare while about 2,000 party militiamen joined soldiers and paramilitary police on street patrols.
Members of the ruling party militia, wearing T-shirts emblazoned "No to Mass Action" and "zvakwana", or "it’s enough" in the local Shona language, spread throughout Harare. Hundreds massed in the main square, where the opposition had called on supporters to gather in a "D-Day" of protest.
In the second city, Bulawayo, opposition officials said troops in full combat gear were patrolling the streets. Another planned MDC protest in southern Masvingo province was reported to have collapsed in the face of heavy security.
"There are soldiers, police, paramilitary police and ZANU-PF youth brigades everywhere," said Douglas Mwonzora, from a pressure group, the National Constitutional Assembly.
Nathan Shamuyarira, the ruling ZANU-PF party’s secretary for information, told the state-run Herald newspaper: "The time has now come for a showdown with the MDC. It was agreed that we should also use the manpower resources in our movement to stop the MDC from disrupting the economy."
Police arrested Mr Tsvangirai yesterday after a news conference in which he vowed to press ahead with protests.
Police said Mr Tsvangirai would be charged with treason in connection with statements since the March 2002 elections in which Mr Mugabe defeated the MDC leader, winning another six years in power.
Mr Tsvangirai, who urged Zimbabweans to turn out "in their millions" this week, is already on trial on treason charges in connection with an alleged plot on Mr Mugabe’s life. In that affair, the prime witness is a former Israeli intelligence agent with close ties to the Mugabe regime. The charge carries the death penalty.
"There is absolutely no basis for the arrest," his lawyer, Innocent Chagonda, said. "The purpose of organising these stayaways and demonstrations was to put pressure on Mugabe and the ZANU-PF government to come to the negotiating table with MDC for the purpose of finding a solution to the crisis that has gripped this country."
With Mr Tsvangerai in custody until a hearing today, government lawyers are seeking a court order to ban him from making "inflammatory" comments or inciting the public.
In his news conference, Mr Tsvangirai conceded the bruising response to the protest drive - which began on Monday when riot police used tear gas, rifle butts and whips on protesters - had made MDC supporters reluctant to stage open demonstrations.
But he claimed success nonetheless. "From now onwards we will embark on rolling mass action at strategic times of our choice and without any warning to the dictatorship," he said.
The new treason charges were widely seen as an attempt to neutralise the opposition leader, whose calls for action to protest against the government have become steadily more defiant.
Mr Tsvangirai said the protests are aimed at forcing Mugabe to the negotiating table on the country’s political and economic crisis, where "his exit would be hammered out in the best interests of the country".
He said: "Mugabe has now been exposed as a violent and illegitimate dictator with no pretence to any semblance of civil mass support. He continues to shamelessly hang on to power through brutal force."
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