Agents of Robert Mugabe's regime are harassing and intimidating Zimbabwean dissidents in Britain in an attempt to silence his political rivals and disrupt vital fundraising for Morgan Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Mr Mugabe's feared security force, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), is waging a highly-organised campaign to terrify the 4,000 MDC members living in the UK. It involves surveillance, threats against family members in Zimbabwe, menacing late-night phone calls and bogus messages saying that fundraising activities are cancelled or disrupted.
The existence of the campaign was confirmed last night by British security sources, who said the targeting of dissidents and MDC members was stepped up in recent weeks as Mr Mugabe sought to maintain his grip on power. Police are investigating a number of incidents, including an alleged phone call to an MDC member who was told that his parents in Zimbabwe faced eviction unless he stopped criticising Mr Mugabe.
Yesterday, militias loyal to the ruling Zanu-PF party roamed Zimbabwean villages and towns to press-gang MDC supporters into voting for Mr Mugabe in the discredited second round of the presidential election. The European Union described the vote as a "sham".
But while the brutal treatment that Mr Mugabe's followers have meted out in his own country in recent weeks, with the deaths of at least 80 people, has provoked international condemnation, tactics designed to instil fear and panic have been deployed out of the public gaze against the 20,000 Zimbabweans living in Britain.
MDC officials said a key target of the CIO operation appeared to be the money – between £5,000 and £10,000 a month, which was being sent from the UK to back Mr Tsvangirai's campaign until he withdrew from the ballot last week. With inflation in Zimbabwe running at three million per cent, hard cash is vital to buy campaign essentials such as fuel and printing supplies.
Tendai Goneso, treasurer of the MDC's UK and Ireland branch, said: "It is a highly-organised and co-ordinated campaign to intimidate members and interrupt our ability to send money to support the presidential campaign. Mr Mugabe has exported the methods he has used against Zimbabweans at home to the heart of the former colonial power.
"The money was very important for enabling us to keep Mr Tsvangirai campaigning. We can buy 10,000 litres of fuel each month and send regular consignments of mobile phones, and that is what they are trying to stop.
"Our members are being filmed, they are whispered to that they are doing the work of the 'white man', they receive phone calls saying they are on a list in Harare. It is the sort of onslaught that can only have come from within the regime."
An investigation by The Independent, corroborated by British security sources, found a range of strategies used to disrupt and coerce Mr Mugabe's opponents, many of them asylum-seekers who feel unable to complain to British authorities. The tactics include:
*Filming of demonstrators outside the Zimbabwean embassy in London, followed by telephone calls to activists, warning that their details have been passed to the government in Harare, or that their families will face punitive sanctions;
*The seizure of 60,000 MDC newspapers sent to Harare in secret for distribution at election rallies, when only a handful of London-based activists knew of the consignment. This followed alleged attempts by CIO agents and Zanu-PF to infiltrate the MDC in the UK and obtain financial records and member details;
*The sending of hundreds of emails and text messages to MDC members, cancelling meetings and fund-raising events or giving incorrect times and dates for such activities;
*The offer of financial inducements in return for ending criticism of the Mugabe regime and the threat of future retribution if a target does not comply;
*Disruption of dissident and MDC meetings in Walsall, Wolverhampton and Peterborough, where Zanu-PF members shouted pro-Mugabe slogans and photographed members;
*The alleged interception of information passed from the MDC's London office to its headquarters in Harare, leading to the seizure of mobile phones sent from Britain for party organisers in rural areas to record violence against voters. Dissidents hiding at the MDC HQ and churches in Harare, whose presence was mentioned in a phone call to London last week, were arrested in a police raid the day after the call.
British security officials said the tactics of Mugabe agents and supporters were similar to those used by other authoritarian states against exiles based in the UK. However, they underlined that there has so far been no evidence of serious physical assault. Investigations are understood to be under way at Scotland Yard and several other forces, including the West Midlands, following several complaints.
Last night, the Zimbabwean embassy in London declined to comment on the claims, but there is evidence that the campaign has spread across Britain. The Independent was told of an attempt to disrupt MDC meetings in Wolverhampton, where several men repeatedly harassed and threatened members, warning them to leave the organisation. Offensive text messages were also sent to branch members. Complaints to police resulted in a restraining order being imposed on a 22-year-old man. Kumbirayi Machekanyanga, vice-chairman of the branch, said: "Anyone wishing to express dissenting views is welcome but these guys were of a different order. They had clearly come to stop whatever we were doing to organise against Mugabe. It took action by police to send them away."
The pressure to end public anti-Mugabe protests has ranged from appeals not to side with the "white neo-colonialists" to the promise of money if those who have previously spoken out in the media desist immediately.
"Robert", a former senior CIO agent living in Britain, told The Independent: "The Zimbabwean community in Britain is a small pond and there are now some big CIO fish in it. Harare has given the order to keep the MDC here under control, spoil their efforts and scare or seduce their members. They cannot resort to outright violence but anything up to that point will be considered justified. It is part of a wider battle for survival by the regime. They are running scared of what will happen if they lose power."