Mugabe sweeps in draconian laws to silence opponents

President steamrollers the opposition and brings in drastic laws aimed at ensuring his re-election without democracy
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The Zimbabwe parliament hammered the final nail into the coffin of the country's democracy yesterday by adopting two laws aimed at silencing any political opposition two months before Robert Mugabe holds a presidential election.

Unlike previous sittings, the House was packed. The air was as hot as a furnace because of the sudden breakdown of the air-conditioning system.

The ruling party's 93 MPs had been ordered to turn out in full force to approve the bills or face tough sanctions from the party. The 57 opposition MPs also turned up to put on record their rejection of the Bills, which Mr Mugabe hopes will enable him to win re-election in the presidential election set for 9 March.

As the tension rose during the many hours of deliberations in the suffocating heat, some MPs came close to exchanging blows. There could not have been a more fitting environment to pass the two draconian Bills: the Public Order and Security Bill and the General Laws Amendment Act.

They were passed just as the four main journalistic unions agreed to boycott an Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill that imposes hefty fines and jail terms for reporters practising "unethical journalism". That media Bill and another one on labour relations that bans workers from striking are now due to be passed on Tuesday.

While the unions were meeting, Mr Mugabe's militias went on the rampage, burning copies of independent newspapers. Many copies of the weekly Financial Gazette were burnt at the airport where militias were gathering to welcome the Democratic Republic of Congo's President, Laurent Kabila.

The two Bills that were passed yesterday, the Public Order and Security Bill and the General Laws Amendment Act, were already the most anti-democratic in Zimbabwe's history. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) immediately branded the laws "fascist" and vowed to challenge them in court.

The security Bill promises death penalties against Zimbabweans accused of assisting in terrorism, subversion espionage, banditry, sabotage and treason against Mr Mugabe's government. These offences are broadly defined and they include any suspicion by the authorities that a person is plotting against the government.

It outlaws the publishing or communicating of "false statements prejudicial to the state or that incite public disorder, violence, affect defence and the economic interests of the country or undermine confidence in security forces." It bars public gatherings "to conduct riots, disorder or intolerance" and makes it an offence to undermine the authority of Mr Mugabe by making statements or publishing statements that provoke hostility.

The General Laws Amendment Bill will ban independent election monitors and forbids private voter education.

Mr Mugabe's hand-picked Electoral Supervisory Commission will oversee all Zimbabwe polls under this law and will assume sole responsibility for recruiting, training and deploying election monitors.

The Bill will also disenfranchise millions of Zimbabweans living abroad.

The General Laws Amendment bill was passed in a restaged vote, which the MDC described as illegal and in breach of parliamentary rules.

Parliament passed the law by 62 votes to 49 after the ruling Zanu-PF MPs lost 22 to 36 on Tuesday. That defeat was the first time the ruling party had lost a vote in two decades.

The leadership of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, the Zimbabwe Independent Journalists Association and the Foreign Correspondents Association unanimously agreed to mobilise all journalists to defy the media Bill that will be passed next week.

In addition to jailing journalists for writing stories that spread "fear, alarm and despondency", the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill bans foreign correspondents from reporting in Zimbabwe. It will also put all local journalists on a system of one-year renewable licences issued by the Information Minister, Jonathan Moyo.

Journalists will also be charged for publishing stories that discredit people on the basis of sex, race, age, nationality, language, religion, profession, place of residence or work. The four unions resolved to start running a campaign to urge support for their boycott this weekend.

The small number of white people who gathered in the public gallery of Parliament to witness yesterday's proceedings must have ended up wondering why they had even bothered to turn up for the crucial proceedings.

"You see these people, they are representing the British. They are here so that the MDC can play to the gallery," said the Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa.

Ruling party MPs took turns to chide the 14 whites in the gallery until only one was left by the end of the day's proceedings. Points made by opposition MPs were not entertained by the Speaker of Parliament, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is from Mr Mugabe's party.

"These two Bills are the end of this country. Mugabe can now run Zimbabwe like his pig sty. It's the end," thundered opposition MP Tendai Biti, in the full knowledge that his words were falling on deaf ears.

Mr Mugabe is facing EU sanctions and the threat of having his country's membership of the Commonwealth suspended as a result of his crackdown, which has intensified in recent months.

Senior British officials suggested yesterday that the timing of the presidential election could provide the embattled Zimbabwean leader with the opportunity to miss the Commonwealth summit in Brisbane, that could discuss suspending Zimbabwe at the meeting from March 2-5.

The Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, said the international community could press for change in Zimbabwe but there was "no magic" to stop a government from ruling a country. "Zimbabwe is a tragedy of enormous proportions," she admitted yesterday.