Zimbabwean police arrested about 300 people in central Harare yesterday as they gathered to protest against increasing repression.
The activists from the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), an alliance of civic groups seeking constitutional reform, had not forewarned the police about their protest as required under draconian security laws.
Douglas Mwonzora, an NCA spokesman, said they had not told the authorities because they did not want to be dispersed before they could begin the protest, which has happened before.
But the strategy failed. Mr Mwonzora said several NCA members were beaten as police sealed off the city centre.
Zimbabwe's security laws require protesters to seek police permission before staging peaceful demonstrations. But this is never grantedand police take advantage of any notice given to block venues before demonstrators assemble.
The NCA activists tried to congregate in Africa Unity Square in central Harare - the equivalent of London's Trafalgar Square. They had planned to march to protest against what Mr Mwonzora described as unmitigated repression by the President, Robert Mugabe. But somehow the police had been informed and arrested demonstrators as soon as the first batch had assembled.
Those arrested included the NCA's chairman, Lovemore Madhuku, who has become Mr Mugabe's chief enemy in the civic society sector. Before his arrest, Mr Madhuku told The Independent that Zimbabweans were now faced with a difficult choice - either to die quietly of hunger in their homes or to risk dying in the streets to save Zimbabwe from Mr Mugabe's tyranny.
In the absence of any help from the international community to rein in Mr Mugabe, Mr Madhuku said Zimbabweans had to confront the regime head on.
The situation in Zimbabwe has worsened in the past week with the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe announcing that it no longer has any fuel.
The fuel shortage has paralysed government departments, including the ambulance service, which can no longer attend accident scenes and to very sick patients.
Zimbabwean workers have been left with no alternative but to walk up to 45 miles to and from work every day.
Inflation has reached nearly 500 per cent and hunger is now hitting Zimbabwean urban families hard.
According to one newspaper report at the weekend, 45 children have died of malnutrition in the past few weeks. Many others are dropping out of school because of hunger and lack of school fees.
Mr Mwonzora said the NCA would keep using public protests to call for a new constitution for Zimbabwe leading to free and fair elections and a new government for the country. Despite his policies bringing the country to its knees, Mr Mugabe, 79, is not giving up on power. He has blamed Britain for the crisis in his country.