Zimbabwe students fight with riot police

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The Independent Online

Riot police in Zimbabwe fought running battles with students yesterday and arrested 19 pro-democracy activists, including a prominent intellectual, after they tried to stage a demonstration in the capital, Harare.

At Westminster, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said Britain remained "profoundly concerned'' at the recent increase in violence in the country and denounced as "preposterous" signals last week from President Robert Mugabe's office that journalists, including The Independent's Harare-based correspondent, are "assisting terrorists''.

The University of Zimbabwe students stoned police, who retaliated with tear gas, after they tried to stage a campus demonstration over the killing last Saturday of fellow-student Lameck Chemvura, 23, thrown to his death by soldiers from a train. A soldier is under arrest. The students yesterday branded President Mugabe a "terrorist'' and called on him to resign.

Mr Chemvura died after soldiers harassed passengers and accused them of supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The party was declared a "terrorist group'' last week, although it has 57 seats in Parliament.

The demonstration by activists from Zimbabwe's largest civic group, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), was called to protest plans by 77-year-old president Mugabe to change electoral laws. Those arrested included the respected and outspoken law professor, Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the NCA. In yesterday's Independent, Mr Madhuku said President Mugabe was effectively running Zimbabwe under a state of emergency.

Last night, NCA executive director Perpetua Bganya said Mr Madhuku remained in custody and she and lawyers had been refused access to him. It appeared the activists were being detained for "obstructing the flow of traffic''. Last week, police thwarted a similar NCA demonstration to protest plans to amend Zimbabwe's Electoral Act. The amendments will ban foreign monitoring of presidential elections due by April, forbid private organisations from conducting voter education and deny voting rights to more than million Zimbabweans living abroad.

In the Commons yesterday Mr Straw staged the vigorous defence of the rights of journalists to report the situation in Zimbabwe and praised the "great courage'' shown by Zimbabwean journalists, including The Independent's Basildon Peta, "recording the situation against the most flagrant intimidation''. Last week, Mr Peta was included among a small group of journalists whom the government said it would treat as though they were "assisting terrorists''.

Mr Straw also told the Commons that the Commonwealth ministerial action group would discuss Zimbabwe in a tele-conference next month and hold a meeting in London in January. If violence continues to rise, the Commonwealth is likely to back planned European Union sanctions from February. These would include an end to EU aid, suspension of trade privileges and travel bans on Mr Mugabe, his family and aides.

* The World Association of Newspapers yesterday awarded its annual press freedom prize to Geoffrey Nyarota, 50, editor-in-chief of Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper, The Daily News for his commitment to reporting the truth despite a "constant campaign of intimidation".