Defying the crackdown on the opposition by President Robert Mugabe's government, Zimbabwe's High Court yesterday overturned a police ban on rallies by the Movement for Democratic Change. Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is challenging Mr Mugabe in the presidential election run-off on 27 June.
"The effect of the order is to allow MDC rallies to proceed," said the party's lawyer, Charles Kwaramba. "The order simply says that police should not interfere with the MDC rallies. We made an urgent chamber application after police wrote to say the rallies scheduled for this weekend should not continue."
A party spokesman, Nelson Chamisa, said the MDC would press ahead with rallies planned for this weekend, but the order does not apply to gatherings later in the campaign. "What is disturbing is we have to go to the High Court each time we want to meet our supporters," he said. "That only happens in a dictatorship."
On Friday police banned several planned rallies because the authorities said they could not guarantee the safety of party leaders. Though the order demonstrates that judicial independence has not been completely extinguished in Zimbabwe, the Zanu-PF government has often ignored such rulings in the past.
In the past week, it has been accused by senior Western diplomats and human rights organisations of stopping at nothing to ensure that Mr Mugabe's 28-year grasp on power is not broken, and that he wins the second round vote after he finished 6 per cent behind Mr Tsvangirai, according to official results, in the first round on 29 March.
This weekend, US-based Human Rights Watch said it had confirmed at least 36 politically motivated deaths and 2,000 victims of violence.
Since he returned to Zimbabwe on 24 May after several weeks out of the country, Mr Tsvangirai has been harassed by the authorities and arrested twice, most recently on Friday. The MDC leader was detained at a roadblock near Bulawayo, the second city, for several hours before being taken to a police station.
The party said another of its MPs, Eric Matinenga, was arrested yesterday, two days after charges against him of inciting violence had been dropped.
In their efforts to coerce voters into switching their support to Zanu-PF from the MDC, the authorities have also prevented British, US and other diplomats from observing electioneering in rural areas. Diplomats travelling in convoy have been held at the roadside and the tyres of their vehicles slashed, and aid organisations, which help to feed four million Zimbabweans, said they had been ordered to stop operations.
The Zimbabwean ambassador in London, Gabriel Machinga, told the BBC the organisations were spreading MDC propaganda while they distributed food.
But the aid groups and the US ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, said the reverse was true. Before the first round of voting in March, the authorities distributed food only to voters who could produce a Zanu-PF membership card, and the government appears determined to control all food handouts before this month's run-off.
"If you have an MDC card you can receive food, but first you have to give the national identity card to the government officials, which means they will hold on to it until after the election," said Mr McGee.
Although neighbouring countries belonging to the Southern African Development Community are sending observers ahead of the election, the MDC and civic organisations say it will be too late. Large areas of the country have been sealed off for several weeks.
Reports have streamed out of an intimidation campaign by Zanu-PF militias, "war veterans" and the security forces, in which many people have been burned and beaten to death in front of large gatherings, who have been forced to watch.