Fears grow for MDC secretary general arrested for treason

Amid mounting fears that the senior Zimbabwean opposition official Tendai Biti is being tortured in custody, his lawyers obtained a high court order yesterday that he be brought before a judge today.

Mr Biti, 41, secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was last seen on Thursday by fellow passengers disembarking from a flight from Johannesburg. They saw him being led away in handcuffs by 10 men in suits before he had even reached the immigration area of Harare airport.

Police have said Mr Biti will be charged with treason, a crime which carries the death penalty.

It is understood that Mr Biti was taken first to Matapi police station, then to Harare Central and is currently being held at the notorious Goromonzi torture centre, about 20 miles south-east of the capital.

The basement torture chamber is located in a small farming village of the same name and is run by the feared Central Intelligence Organisation. It is known as the "swimming pool" because of its wet floor, a feature designed to increase the impact of electric shocks.

Mr Biti's lawyer, Selby Hwacha, said he had made futile attempts to ascertain where his client was being held. The MDC said it had "dispatched a team of lawyers and human rights defenders to every possible police station in Harare in an effort to secure his whereabouts".

The party added: "We are deeply worried about the welfare of the secretary general. Given the gravity of the otherwise ludicrous charges that have been preferred against Mr Biti, it is critical that he is able to access legal representation."

A Zimbabwe police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena, refused to give details of Mr Biti's whereabouts or state of health and would only repeat an earlier statement: "We are charging him with treason and communicating and publishing false statements prejudicial to the state ... [He] is in police custody and we are still investigating the matter."

The arrest of Mr Biti, a lawyer who until Wednesday had led an MDC delegation at South African-brokered talks with the Zimbabwean ruling party, Zanu-PF, met with condemnation from Britain and the United States.

And perhaps more significantly, it prompted the strongest-ever regional diplomatic attack on Zimbabwe – from neighbouring Botswana.

"Botswana is alarmed by these arrests and detentions as they disrupt electoral activities of key players and intimidate the electorate, thus undermining the process of holding a free, fair and democratic election," said Clifford Maribe, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.