Colonial powers invoked in crackdown on rallies

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The Independent Online

Augustine Chihuri, Zimbabwe's police commissioner, yesterday invoked wide-reaching colonial-era powers controlling political movement and association which he claimed would stem mounting violence but which opposition parties insisted would prevent them from campaigning.

The law and order regulations invoked - ironically, created in 1960 by white Rhodesia to crush the black liberation movement - would allow police to prohibit marches and rallies and even ban specific organisations.

Yesterday David Coltart, legal advisor to the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, said his party was considering challenging the move in court. The regulations he said were "quite clearly designed to curtail the MDC's campaigning activities".

It's hard to see how the regulations, if widely applied, could fail to affect the opposition's bid to win the promised parliamentary elections. Though it has made astonishing progress against President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, the MDC is still a baby, just seven months old. Its attempts to gain ground in rural areas traditionally domination by Zanu have already been thwarted by the campaign of violence being waged by Zanu supporters. The new regulations would undoubtedly hurt their campaign further.

Yesterday only reinforced the wide-held belief that the police are playing hand maiden to Mugabe's government. They have stood by and watched farm invasions but at yesterday's press conference - all very British somehow, down to the little milk jugs with the police crest and plates of biscuits for the press - Mr Chihuri denied that the police were partial, or that they were allowing the current government to terrorise people into voting for it.

He chose to highlight four of almost 200 acts of political violence recorded by police this year. Three painted Zanu members as victims and the MDC as aggressors, which is simply at odds with the reality on the ground. Zanu is widely accepted as the perpetrator of the current wave of violence and the campaign of terror. At least nine of the 14 who have died so far in the unrest have been MDC supporters. No Zanu activists have died.

Yet Mr Chihuri claimed that Zanu and the MDC were equally culpable for the violence. "It is not biased," he said as the press conference erupted into laughter. "I have the statistics."

Everyone else has experiences: one angry foreign journalist asked how anyone could have confidence in the police when officers had stood by and watched when she was threatened by seven Zanu supporters inside a police station. The commissioner's new move comes the day Morgan Tsvangirai, MDC leader, warned that his party could not keep turning the other cheek.