President Robert Mugabe's regime struck at his rivals Thursday, only two weeks before Zimbabwe's presidential runoff, twice detaining his challenger and jailing the No. 2 opposition leader to face treason charges.
The repeated detentions, coupled with Western accusations that Mugabe's regime is withholding food aid from opposition supporters, dramatically demonstrate the obstacles to the campaign thrown up by the longtime leader.
“This is a government that is taking tremendous and, frankly, awful strides to maintain its power, that is increasingly abusing its own citizens and has raised, or should I say lowered, the bar to a level that we rarely see,” State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said in Washington.
Morgan Tsvangirai, who led the opening round of presidential voting 21/2 months ago and faces Mugabe in a June 27 runoff, was first stopped at a roadblock in the south and held at a police station for about two hours, his party said.
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The party said Tsvangirai went back to campaigning but was stopped later by another group of police, and it was not known if he was still being held Thursday night. It was the third and fourth times in recent weeks that he was detained.
But the biggest blow was aimed at Tendai Biti, secretary-general of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, who was arrested at Harare Airport upon returning from South Africa. Police said he would be charged with treason, which carries the possibility of the death penalty.
Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said the treason charge related to a “transition document” discussing changing Zimbabwe's government.
He said Biti also would be charged with making false statements “prejudicial to the state.” That charge refers to accusations that Biti announced election results before the official count was released. Under Zimbabwean law, only the electoral commission can announce results.
Bvudzijena said Biti was in police custody but would not say where. He said Biti would be charged “as soon as we are through with our investigation,” but would not be more specific.
Biti's detention robs the opposition of one of its most impassioned spokesmen. He has led on-and-off talks with Mugabe's party, and his arrest may signal Mugabe's final rejection of the possibility of negotiating Zimbabwe out of its political and economic crisis.
In a statement, Tsvangirai's party called on police “to immediately reveal Mr. Biti's location and release him unharmed immediately.”
The party said it was “extremely concerned about the welfare of the secretary-general given the flagrant disregard for the rule of law and ongoing, state-sanctioned political violence and abductions currently prevalent in Zimbabwe.”
South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was appointed by Zimbabwe's neighbors to mediate in the crisis but has been accused by critics of not doing enough, planned to discuss Biti's arrest with Mugabe's government, his spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga said.
Mbeki intervened on behalf of Tsvangirai when the leader was detained for nine hours earlier this month.Tsvangirai, Biti and other opposition leaders had left Zimbabwe soon after the first presidential ballot March 29 amid concerns about their security. Tsvangirai returned May 24 to begin campaigning for the runoff.