The standard-bearer for Zimbabwe’s opposition was twice detained by the police on Thursday, and one of his most important deputies was arrested to face treason charges.
The events underscored the daunting obstacles to campaigning against President Robert Mugabe in the two weeks before a presidential runoff.
The opposition presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, who was detained twice last week, was held up by the police twice more on Thursday in what was supposed to have been a day of rallies and campaigning, his party said.
The arrest of the deputy, Tendai Biti, was even more chilling for the party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Biti, the party’s secretary-general, was swiftly apprehended at Harare’s airport on Thursday as he returned from South Africa after a self-imposed absence of two months. He will be charged with treason, a police spokesman said.
Even before his passport could be stamped, “10 men in plain clothes whisked him away,” his party said. “His whereabouts are unknown.”
Senior officials in Mugabe’s governing party, in power for 28 years, have accused Biti, a lawyer who is often the opposition’s public face, of violating the law by announcing the outcome of the initial round of voting in March before the official results were released.
They also alleged that Biti wrote a paper shortly before the disputed March election laying out the opposition’s strategy for a transition to power and efforts to bribe poll officers “so that they exploit any available opportunity to overstate our votes,” according to a quotation from the document published in the state-owned newspaper, The Herald, in April.
The opposition has dismissed the document as a forgery. Others have also found it implausible that Biti, a successful lawyer, would have written something so blatantly self-incriminating.
Jonathan Moyo, formerly information minister and member of the governing party’s Politburo and now an independent member of parliament, said the signature on the document did not look like Biti’s.
“If he authored it, he’s a very stupid fellow,” Moyo said, adding, “We can accuse him of many things, including political naivete, but stupidity as a lawyer isn’t one of them.”
The police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena, said Biti was in police custody in Harare. He said Biti was charged with “falsely indicating” that Tsvangirai had won the initial election on March 29 before the official results were released. Election officials announced them after a delay of more than a month.
Biti will be charged with treason, Bvudzijena said, because of statements made in the document on the party’s transition plans. If found guilty, Biti could face death by hanging.
Later on Thursday, Tsvangirai was detained along with an entourage of 20 people at a roadblock near the central town of Kwekwe while they were campaigning, his party said. He was held at the police station in Kwekwe, released after two hours, but later detained again while driving into Gweru, the next stop on his campaign, the Movement for Democratic Change said in a statement. He was released a second time without being charged, a party spokesman told Reuters.