Zimbabwe crackdown challenged in court, opposition leaders in hiding

HARARE (Reuters) – Legal challenges to a brutal clampdown on dissent by Zimbabwe’s government were set in motion on Monday, as fears that the country is veering back towards authoritarian rule drove some leaders of the main opposition party into hiding.

Protesters stand behind a burning barricade during protests on a road leading to Harare, Zimbabwe, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo/File Photo

The fragile state of Zimbabwe’s economy was also in focus as President Emmerson Mnangagwa headed home early from a foreign trip during which he had been expected to pitch for investments, while South Africa said it turned down a request from its neighbour for a $1.2 billion loan last month.

The lawyer for pastor Evan Mawarire, a rights activist, said he would seek bail at the High Court after being charged with subversion. Beatrice Mtetwa said she was unsure when the court would hear the case.

Mawarire is the most prominent of hundreds of people, also including four opposition lawmakers, detained on public order charges on Friday following violent protests last week against a fuel price hike.

Police say three people died during the unrest, but lawyers and human rights groups say evidence suggests at least a dozen were killed while scores were treated for gunshot wounds.

On social media on Monday, many Zimbabweans said the clampdown had the hallmarks of Mnangagwa’s deputy, Constantino Chiwenga, a retired general who led the coup that toppled former leader Robert Mugabe in November.

But the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said Mnangagwa – nicknamed “Crocodile” during his time as a high-ranking official in Mugabe’s strong-arm administration – was similar in outlook.

“These two walk the same path, they may have a different approach from time to time but the objective is the same. They want to dismantle the MDC leadership,” MDC spokesman Jacob Mafume said, adding that several of its leaders were in hiding.

Mnangagwa’s spokesman said on Sunday that the crackdown was a foretaste of how authorities would respond to future unrest.

CHALLENGE TO INTERNET BLACKOUT

In what opponents view as a further attempt to crush dissent, the government has imposed a sporadic internet blackout since Tuesday.

A lawyers’ group said it planned to challenge that shutdown in the High Court on Monday afternoon. The action is directed at Zimbabwe’s three mobile networks as well as Mnangagwa, the national security minister and the head of the intelligence services.

Mnangagwa, who has been on a four-nation European tour, was expected to try to attract investors at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. A foreign ministry source said he was now due back in Harare on Monday night.

With high inflation and a shortage of cash in circulation eating into ordinary Zimbabweans’ spending power, the government introduced buses to carry passengers at cheaper fares after public taxis increased prices citing the fuel price hike.

Businesses, including banks, shops and government offices re-opened in Harare on Monday but some schools in Chitungwiza town to the south remained closed, residents said.

Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; writing by John Stonestreet

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