Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe had hardly called for elections this year before a crackdown on opposition groups began. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai says it's time for a divorce in the unity government.
Arrests among opposition group members are increasing
Opposition groups in Zimbabwe accused President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party of politically motivated violence and of detaining individuals who speak out against the government.
"Police officers are everywhere in the city," Magodonga Mahlangu said from Harare after she and other members of the group Women of Zimbabwe Rise Up attempted to stage a demonstration in the Zimbabwean capital this week. "Three of our members have been arrested. They have not been formally charged and have not been granted their right to see their lawyer."
In other demonstrations, 46 activists were arrested at the end of February for discussing the possibility of an uprising in Zimbabwe styled after recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Politically motivated violence
Most of the people arrested have been released due to lack of evidence, but six remain in custody and have been charged with treason, which carries a death sentence. Zimbabwe's high court said Friday it would rule next week on the activists' bail applications.
Amnesty International last month accused the ZANU-PF party of attacking supporters of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC party, claiming police were complicit in the violence.
All but six of the 46 activists arrested were released
Human Rights Watch also reported a nationwide campaign of intimidation at the hands of ZANU-PF party aimed against the MDC.
"We think this is an attempt to intimidate the population into voting for ZANU," Human Rights Watch spokesperson Tiseke Kasambala said. "This is something the party has done in the past: intimidation, repression and violence to force people to vote for ZANU-PF."
Drafting a new constitution
Ahead of presidential elections in 2008, people suspected of belonging to the opposition against Mugabe were taken into custody without being charged. The current unity government, in which Mugabe remained president with Tsvangirai serving as prime minister, came into power in February 2009 under intense international pressure for Mugabe to step aside or share power.
One of the conditions of the power-sharing agreement, however, was the creation of a new constitution as the basis for free and fair elections.
Mugabe was accused of similarly violent tactics ahead of the 2008 election
Mugabe said elections would be held in September - ahead of a schedule drawn up by the coalition government. Tsvangirai had previously said polls should be held only once a new constitution guaranteeing political freedoms suppressed during Mugabe's three decades in power was put in place.
A parliamentary committee is working on a draft constitution, according to MDC parliamentarian Coltheart, who added that international pressure, particularly from Zimbabwe's neighbors, would help prevent violence from revisiting Zimbabwe.
"The region does not want Zimbabwe to slide back into the chaos it experienced in 2008," Coltheart said. "I don't think the region is going to tolerate this reversion to the tactics of the past."
Western appeal for justice
Western officials also called on Zimbabwean authorities to carry out their duties without prejudice. An appeal signed by 22 ambassadors from European Union countries, the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia, called on Zimbabwe's security force, the attorney general and the judiciary, all of which are seen as controlled by Mugabe, to discharge their duties in an impartial manner.
Charges of abuse of office leveled at Zimbabwean Energy Minister Elton Mangoma, a key Tsvangirai ally, have caused another breakdown in the unity government.
Mangoma was denied bail by a court on Friday. He stands accused of breaking tender regulations in the purchase of 5 million liters of fuel from a South African company. His trial is scheduled to start on March 28.
Time for a 'divorce'
Mangoma's arrest on Thursday led Tsvangirai to call for a "divorce" of the two parties governing Zimbabwe and for new elections.
The Mugabe-Tsvangirai wedding was one of necessity rather than love
"We have reached a moment where we are saying, let's agree that this is not working, it's dysfunctional," Tsvangirai told a news conference. "Let's make arrangements to go for elections under a roadmap designed by SADC [Southern African Development Community] so that we have a clear, legitimate government."
The 2008 presidential election failed to result in a clear winner after Tsvangirai won the first round of voting but pulled out a the run-off saying attacks against his supporters left more than 200 people dead.
The 87-year-old Mugabe, who has held the president's office since 1980, has already been endorsed by his party to run in the next election.
Authors: Elisabeth Jahn, Sean Sinico (Reuters, AFP, dpa)
Editor: Rob Mudge