Zimbabwe's Mugabe tightens grip to prevent Mubarak-style sendoff

President Robert Mugabe's security forces have arrested democracy activists for watching videos of the Tunisian revolt and have also detained members of the opposition party.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe reacts after signing a petition against Western economic sanctions targeting his supporters, in Harare, on Wednesday. Speaking at the petition-signing ceremony, Mugabe threatened to seize foreign businesses in retaliation for Western economic sanctions targeting him and his supporters over alleged human rights abuses in the southern African nation.

The detention of one of Zimbabwe’s leading human rights campaigners, Munyaradzi Gwisai, and 44 other activists will continue through the weekend, following a Harare court decision Tuesday. Mr. Gwisai, a University of Zimbabwe professor, was arrested with other participants for meeting to discuss the North African uprisings, a sign of just how seriously President Robert Mugabe is about ensuring that an Egyptian-style uprising doesn’t occur against his regime.

Gwisai, who is secretary general of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), and the others, are facing treason charges and could face the death penalty. Human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama, who is representing them, says his clients were tortured while in police custody, and the court has since ordered that they get medical care.

The arrests come amid a broad clampdown by President Mugabe. In the past month, more than 100 people, mostly activists from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have been arrested. In addition, political violence, spearheaded by Zanu-PF militia in Harare’s slums, has forced more than 1,000 MDC supporters to go into hiding.

“This is part of a larger crackdown on the MDC supporters and on civil society groups,” says Tiseke Kasambala, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Johannesburg. “Because of ... proposed elections coming up later this year, Mugabe isn’t taking any chances. He will not tolerate dissent.”

Trumped-up charges?

The police last week arrested Joe Sikhala, leader of a breakaway faction of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC, charging him with kidnapping two people in the diamond fields of Chiadzwa, in Manicaland. But analysts said Sikhala’s arrest was aimed at preventing him and others from mobilizing a One Million March against Mugabe that was planned for March 1.

At least 22 members of rights advocacy group Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza/Moza) from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, were also arrested over the past three days for allegedly taking part in a meeting to “promote public violence.” Woza leader Jenni Williams says the arrested members were being denied food in police custody.

Separately, opposition legislator Douglas Mwonzora, a member of Tshvangirai’s faction of the MDC, along with 22 villagers are in jail on charges of public violence.

Among the greatest areas of concern for Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African Nationalist Union – Popular Front (ZANU-PF), are the high-density slum areas and rural districts that once formed a reliable voter base. In the March 2008 elections, many of those areas voted for the MDC, giving it control of parliament and presenting Mugabe with his strongest challenge yet.

Over the past week, soldiers have been highly visible in Harare’s high-density slum areas and in rural areas as well.

You will sign our petition

Today, hundreds of people were forced to come out of their homes to sign a petition aimed at convincing the international community to end targeted economic sanctions against Mugabe and his inner circle of ZANU-PF leaders, and thousands were herded off to Harare stadium to hear Mugabe give a speech. Mugabe’s supporters blame the targeted sanctions for Zimbabwe’s economic woes, but the sanctions don’t prevent governments from giving development and humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe government institutions.

For the petition campaign, some shops in downtown Harare were forced to close, and schools were disrupted.

Speaking at the petition-signing ceremony, Mugabe threatened action against his usual targets – the few remaining white farmers and British and American companies operating in Zimbabwe, saying there was no reason for them to be here while sanctions remain in effect.

“We should take those companies and be our own bosses,” said Mugabe amid cheers from the crowd. “Let them work under us. We must be masters of our destiny, including our resources.”

Mugabe said he would set up an empowerment committee to deal with foreign companies that support sanctions: “Those [companies] ... we can take action to boycott their products.”

Mugabe has also threatened to take over Nestlé Zimbabwe, a company that recently refused to buy milk from his Gushungo farm, and Zimplats, a mining company that Mugabe accused of taking its profits out of the country rather than reinvesting them in Zimbabwe.

*A reporter who could not be named for security reasons wrote this report from Harare.

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