MPs protest at arrest of 'Independent' journalist

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The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said yesterday that the arrest of Basildon Peta, The Independent's correspondent in Harare, broke the terms of an EU ultimatum to Zimbabwe which could trigger sanctions.

Mr Straw ordered an urgent report by British diplomats into the circumstances of the detention, which said was "a prima-facie breach" of an EU warning to Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean President, not to interfere with the free working of the international press in the country.

The Foreign Secretary pledged to send the report by the British High Commission in Harare to Chris Patten, the foreign affairs commissioner in Brussels, as evidence Mr Mugabe has broken the terms of the EU ultimatum issued last month. His intervention follows condemnation by MPs of all parties of the arrest on Monday of Mr Peta, who is also secretary general of the Zimbabwean Union of Journalists.

Mr Peta became the first correspondent for the international press to be charged under the new Public Order and Security Act, which aims to silence the opposition ahead of presidential elections next month. He was charged with failing to notify the authorities of a demonstration last week by journalists in Harare. Charges were dropped by the Attorney General yesterday because the law allows professional bodies to assemble without police permission.

Mr Peta said his detention was an attempt to intimidate independent journalists. "Everything was aimed at humiliating me and sending a message to my colleagues that [the regime] will track down those journalists it does not like," he said.

Mr Straw said in the Commons: "I have asked for a full report from the British High Commission in Harare on the circumstances of his arrest. I accept that it is evidence of prima-facie breach of this [EU ultimatum]."

A Commons motion will be tabled today by the Liberal Democrat MP Paul Keetch, condemning the "arbitrary arrest and imprisonment" of Mr Peta and calling for the immediate imposition of sanctions". It will gain all-party support.

Mr Straw confirmed that the first four EU observers had arrived in Zimbabwe and would be followed by 100 more in the coming weeks.

The arrest of Mr Peta dominated Foreign Office questions. Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, called it "a deliberate attempt to intimidate others of like minds". The shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram, said it was "yet another example of how Robert Mugabe can't be trusted to stick to his word."