Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, condemned President Robert Mugabe's repressive clampdown on Zimbabwe's independent media, saying it was "resonant of dictatorship".
He spoke as Zimbabwe's parliament prepared to rubber-stamp punitive new legislation outlawing criticism of Mr Mugabe and his government. Last night police and soldiers surrounded a small group of Zimbabwean journalists protesting against the legislation outside the Harare parliament.
The Independent's correspondent Basildon Peta was arrested as one of the "ringleaders" of the peaceful protest, even though the controversial legislation banning such gatherings has not yet been signed into law. He was interrogated and released after agreeing to ask his colleagues to disband.
Mr Straw said the legislation, which will outlaw insulting the President, was "completely inconsistent" with the principles of the Commonwealth. "It has no place in a country with the least pretensions to democracy and is resonant of dictatorships down through the ages," he said. "Lively and controversial journalism is the test of a democracy".
Mr Straw's condemnation came as the Government halted the deportation of political activists to Zimbabwe following growing criticism of its policy of sending them back. The Home Office has launched an urgent review of the changed circumstances in Zimbabwe amid concern that people refused asylum in Britain could face intimidation and torture if they returned to live under Mr Mugabe's regime.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has ordered that no further deportations take place until the review is completed in a few days. The rethink is expected to result in a formal suspension of deportations until the crisis in Zimbabwe eases.
Mr Blunkett's pledge came at a meeting with Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, who has criticised the Government for allowing people to be sent back to Zimbabwe. Mr Letwin called the decision "a victory for common sense".
Until yesterday, the Government had insisted each application for asylum would be dealt with on its merits, despite warnings by asylum groups that refugees linked to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change would be in grave danger if they returned home.
Downing Street said yesterday that the "country assessment" on Zimbabwe produced for immigration officials last October would be updated to take account of the current problems. Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "We are reviewing the situation in relation to Zimbabwe. We would expect an updated country assessment to be issued shortly."
Although asylum groups welcomed the Government's rethink, they expressed concern that some deportations had already gone ahead. The Asylum Aid group said: "The reports the Home Office produces for the people who are making decisions on asylum claims don't give a proper picture of what is actually going on in these countries. They tend to focus to a very large extent on the historical and geographical background."
Earlier Mr Mugabe told southern African leaders at a summit in Malawi that he was sticking to his controversial land reform policy. Mr Mugabe said he was satisfied with the one-day meeting but declined to give details of what had been said behind its closed doors.
Robert Menard, the general secretary of the press freedom watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres, said: "Our fear is that the situation is getting worse and worse. One wonders where it will stop or if Mugabe will go on until he has arrested all the independent journalists who dare to criticise him."Reuse content