Zimbabwe arrests 36 people for opposition strike

Thursday, April 17, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Police arrested 36 people for allegedly using violence in trying to enforce a nationwide strike Wednesday, while doctors reported treating dozens of patients showing signs of assault and torture since Zimbabwe's contentious presidential election.

The country is still waiting to hear results from a ballot that President Robert Mugabe is widely believed to have lost March 29. The opposition called the strike to press for the release of results, but it seemed to have little effect, with most stores and banks open on the second day.

Three dozen young suspects were arrested in the capital, Harare, and four other cities for blocking streets, stoning cars and buses and preventing people from going to work, police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said.

A judge, meanwhile, acquitted New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak and British reporter Stephen Bevan of covering the election illegally. Magistrate Gloria Takwunda said the state "failed dismally to prove that there was reasonable suspicion of them practicing as journalists."

The two men were held by police for days following their arrest April 3. They had been free on bail for more than a week but blocked from leaving the country pending the court ruling.

A story on the New York Times' Web site said Bearak had left the country. "His only offense was honest journalism, telling Zimbabwe's story at a time of tormented transition," said Bill Keller, the newspaper's executive editor.

The opposition, human rights groups and diplomats accuse Mugabe of orchestrating a campaign of violence against perceived opponents, using police and ruling party militants.

Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights said it had treated 174 cases of injuries consistent with assault and torture since the vote, including 17 Wednesday. Most victims this week suffered multiple fractures, the group said.

Another group, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said earlier that two people had been killed and 29 hospitalized in dozens of attacks that it documented.

The electoral commission says it is verifying votes investigating anomalies, but the opposition says the delay is a strategy by Mugabe to maintain his 28-year grip on power.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai insists he won the election outright. Independent tallies show Tsvangirai led the voting, but not by enough to prevent a runoff.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change has failed in appeals to the courts and regional leaders to force the release of results.

Security forces kept up a heavy presence in the streets Wednesday, with soldiers carrying assault rifles and police in riot gear stationed across Harare and its suburbs.

With 80 percent of the work force jobless in Zimbabwe's economic meltdown, many of the people who do have jobs said they could not afford to strike.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was deeply concerned by the failure to release the election results.

"Absent a transparent solution to this impasse, the situation could deteriorate further with serious implications for the people of Zimbabwe," he warned during the high-level U.N. Security Council meeting on African peace and security issues. "The credibility of the democratic process in Africa could be at stake here."

He said Zimbabwe's government must ensure that the outcome was not rigged.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was also at the meeting, said, "No one thinks, having seen the results at polling stations, that President Mugabe has won this election."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration hoped Zimbabwe's neighbors would use their leverage to make sure democracy prevails.

"We would urge all states, including South Africa and neighboring states and other states in the international system that have an interest in seeing Zimbabwe transition back to a democratic pathway, to use what leverage they have to encourage President Mugabe to return to that path," McCormack said.

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