Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was severely beaten Sunday by police after being arrested on his way to an anti-government protest rally, opposition movement members said.
Tsvangirai and at least 120 members of the Movement for Democratic Change were seized before they could join a rally called by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, a coalition of civic, political and Christian activists, opposition members said. Tsvangirai lost consciousness several times and suffered a deep gash to the head, they said. One protester, Gift Tandare, 41, was shot dead by police.
Opposition figures described the arrests and beatings as an attempt by the regime of President Robert Mugabe to crush dissent amid rising anger over economic collapse and an estimated annual inflation rate of more than 1,000%.
The 83-year old Mugabe has been maneuvering to extend his term, which ends next year, until 2010. He is the only ruler Zimbabwe has had since it gained independence in 1980.
“He [Mugabe] knows it’s the end of his regime. He is trying every last effort to hold on to power and crush any opposition to his rule,” said Roy Bennett, a movement figure who was forced into exile in South Africa.
“I believe we are in the final stages. The people of Zimbabwe have had enough. They [the authorities] might suppress it for a while. But there will be another protest and another one. They can’t suppress it forever.”
The groups said 140 more protesters, including all the Manicaland provincial opposition leaders, were arrested Monday in the town of Mutare, about 160 miles southeast of Harare, as they protested for Tsvangirai’s release. There were also reports of protests in Gweru, 150 miles southwest of the capital.
Riot police armed with guns, batons and tear gas on Monday set up roadblocks and patrolled the western Harare suburb of Highfield, where Sunday’s aborted rally was to take place. In the downtown business district, groups of about a dozen armed police dispersed gatherings of more than four people.
Eliphas Mukonoweshuro, a senior opposition figure, said he saw Tsvangirai shortly before 6 a.m. Monday in the yard of the Borrowdale police station.
“He was wearing a shirt which was all blood. His trousers were beyond recognition with blood and dirt. He was bandaged all over his head. His left eye was swollen shut. He had difficulty in walking,” Mukonoweshuro said in a telephone interview.
One of the arrested movement leaders, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, told The Times by telephone from his cell that all the detained movement members were beaten “terribly.” Whispering so as not to be heard by guards, he confirmed that Tsvangirai, 55, had passed out three times and could barely talk.
The opposition figures were being held at different police stations and were denied access to lawyers, said opposition figures who canvassed police stations.
A police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena, said Tsvangirai and other opposition figures were arrested for inciting people to violence. Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi told state television that anyone who assaulted police would be arrested.
Mukonoweshuro accused police of trying to beat Tsvangirai to death. “His injuries were consistent with a well-calculated act of attempted murder because they were concentrating on beating his head. They didn’t allow him to seek medical attention for hours. They only sneaked him out of his cell at 4 a.m. and took him to hospital,” he said.
Tsvangirai’s wife, Susan, who was allowed to speak to her husband early Monday, told movement officials her husband had trouble eating because of severe pain in his ribs and jaw, Mukonoweshuro said.
Monday night, Justice Chinembiri Bhunu of Zimbabwe’s High Court ordered that those arrested in connection with the aborted protest be given access to lawyers and the doctor of their choice, in response to a habeas corpus writ brought by movement members. He ordered authorities to hold hearings by today or release the prisoners.
The U.S. State Department strongly condemned the violence and called for the release of those arrested. The British Foreign Office also condemned the violence.
Spiwe Mudariki Tandare, 34, the wife of the man killed in the protest, said at her home in the suburb of Glen View that police had been harassing him since 2000 over his opposition activities. At one point he was charged with burning a bus but was acquitted, she said.
“My husband left for Highfield in the morning and around 5 p.m. some women came and told me that he had been shot and killed by the police,” said the mother of three. “It’s clear that those who shot him knew him very well.
“How am I am going to survive with these children? Tell me, where will I get fees and rent?”
Thokozani Khupe, vice president of the Movement for Democratic Change, said at a Harare news conference Monday that it was chilling that police were using lethal force on protesters.
“I would like to warn Robert Mugabe that no amount of police brutality can either stop or delay the people’s march to freedom,” she said.
Times staff writer Dixon reported from Johannesburg, South Africa, and special correspondent Mangudya from Harare.