Opposition leader risks arrest if he returns to Harare

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The Independent Online

Officials in Zimbabwe renewed their threat to arrest the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and charge him with inciting violence if, as expected, he returns to Harare this morning on a flight from South Africa.

Officials in Zimbabwe renewed their threat to arrest the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and charge him with inciting violence if, as expected, he returns to Harare this morning on a flight from South Africa.

Activists from Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) met over the weekend and appeared divided over whether to stage a mass demonstration at the airport when his flight touches down around noon. Large numbers of police have also been at the airport as the tension has increased.

Last week, police and officials said in the government-friendly media that Mr Tsvangirai, whose party won 57 out of 120 seats in the June parliamentary elections, faced "imminent" arrest on incitement to violence charges and for bringing President Robert Mugabe's name into disrepute.

On 30 September, during a speech in Harare marking the MDC's first anniversary, Mr Tsvangirai told a stadium crowd it was time for President Robert Mugabe to resign and that "if you don't want to go we will remove you violently". The 48-year-old MDC leader said in Johannesburg at the weekend: "I'm a law-abiding citizen. If I have broken the law, then I will face the due process of the law," adding that he was confident Zimbabwe's independent judicial system would find him innocent.

If the authorities were to arrest and successfully press charges against Mr Tsvangirai, he would be disqualified from the next presidential elections - expected early in 2002 - for having a criminal record.

A breach of the section of the law and order maintenance act under which he would be charged carries with it up to five years' imprisonment.

More immediately, his arrest could spark violent clashes in Zimbabwe's cities which, since the June elections, have felt the full force of the country's economic collapse.

There are no more fuel queues because pumps are generally empty.

On Harare's streets, hawkers sell funnels for petrol, which has doubled in price since June.

Yesterday, Gandi Mudzingwa, who is Mr Tsvangirai's political adviser, said government opponents were meeting to discuss how to respond if the MDC leader was arrested today. He said: "Our general impression is that workers, MDC supporters and others would not stand by but what form any protest would take has yet to be decided."

Economists report that the rate of inflation is standing at 53 per cent and interest rates are close to 60 per cent. Commercial farmers, who are still facing land invasions and attacks, have planted about 25 per cent less than last year.

But Simba Makoni, the new Finance Minister, has raised hopes of an economic recovery. He has devalued the Zimbabwe dollar and is expected to introduce a land tax on farms exceeding 2,000 hectares.

In addition, a five-member UN Development Programme team is in the country and is said to be having constructive talks with the government about land reform.

But the glimmers of hope are not being felt by MDC supporters or other opponents, who face constant harassment. Last week, when the High Court ruled against a government decision to close down a pirate radio station, President Mugabe simply decreed new broadcasting regulations.

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