Court backs Mugabe's ban on expat voters

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The Independent Online

In a decision that has cast a further shadow over Zimbabwe's upcoming elections, the country's Supreme Court has upheld a government move to ban at least 3.5 million Zimbabweans resident abroad from voting in the 31 March poll.

In a decision that has cast a further shadow over Zimbabwe's upcoming elections, the country's Supreme Court has upheld a government move to ban at least 3.5 million Zimbabweans resident abroad from voting in the 31 March poll.

The ruling has dismayed opponents of President Robert Mugabe, who had hoped that the expatriate population, based mainly in the United Kingdom and South Africa - would overwhelmingly vote against Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

Godfrey Chidyausiku, the Chief Justice, a former government minister and ally of President Mugabe, dismissed an application by the London-based Diaspora Vote Action Group (DVAG), formed by seven British citizens, to allow foreign residents to vote.

In its appeal, the DVAG argued: "The denial of the right of citizens resident in a foreign country to vote is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society". Justice Chidyausiku's decision is likely to give Zanu-PF a significant advantage in the parliamentary elections, since many Zimbabweans living abroad are opposition supporters under the age of 40. Most left the country to search for work after the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, which has ground almost to a halt as the Mugabe regime has become internationally isolated.

At least two million Zimbabweans are living in South Africa and one million reside in the UK. The Zimbabwe government said its opposition to expatriate voting was due to the fact that many election officials were affected by US and EU sanctions and would not be able to travel to organise postal balloting. In their court challenge, the DVAG sought to reverse the ban by arguing that their right to vote was constitutionally protected.

Justice Chidyausikugave no explanation for his ruling. "The court unanimously concluded that the application [by the DVAG] has no merit and is hereby dismissed," he said, adding that the reasons for his judgment would be made available later. All other southern African countries that held elections recently, including South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Botswana, have allowed their expatriate citizens to vote.

The prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who represented the Diaspora Vote Action Group, told The Independent that the matter would now be taken to the African Commission on Human and People's Rights. Although the commission's decision will not be binding on the Mugabe regime, if it rules in favour of expatriate voting, the decision would carry moral weight.

In a separate development, Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, said yesterday that the country was in urgent need of at least 1.5 million tons of corn as food shortages become critical.

International aid agencies have warned that four million people, one-third of the population, will need food aid this year. The crisis has been magnified by poor yields from farms transferred from white to black ownership after Mr Mugabe's land reforms.

Renson Gasela, the MDC's shadow minister for agriculture, said: "There is no way this food crisis can be handled by the regime."

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