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Zimbabwe Opposition leader charged after asylum bid fails

Friday, August 10, 2018

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HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Senior Zimbabwean opposition figure Tendai Biti yesterday was charged with inciting public violence and declaring unofficial election results as fears grew about a government crackdown following the disputed July 30 election.

The court appearance followed dramatic events in which Biti fled to Zambia, was denied asylum and was handed over to Zimbabwean security forces in defiance of a Zambian court order. Western diplomats, including the United States, and the UN refugee agency quickly expressed concern.

“We will keep on fighting,” Biti said as he arrived at court in the capital, Harare. The charge of inciting public violence could bring up to a decade in prison, while the charge of declaring unofficial election results carries a maximum six-month sentence. He was granted $5,000 bail but must surrender his passport, report to authorities twice a day and not address political rallies.

Biti's plight has raised concerns that the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who narrowly won the first election after the fall of Robert Mugabe, will treat the opposition just as harshly as before despite promises of reforms. The opposition says it is preparing a legal challenge to the election results, calling them fraudulent.

Shortly after Biti's hearing, Mnangagwa said he had been released “following my intervention,” without giving details. In a series of posts on Twitter, the president said the case would continue “due to the serious nature of the allegations.” He called on all parties to cease incitement and violence.

In a letter to Zimbabwean police, Biti's lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa alleged that they and military police “unlawfully abducted” Biti from Zambia and “maliciously damaged” the tires of a legal practitioner trying to follow their unmarked vehicles back to Harare.

The letter, seen by The Associated Press, says Biti should be immediately returned to Zambian immigration authorities, and “due to the traditional torture that abductees are generally subjected to in Zimbabwe” it called for a medical team to check him before then.

Zambian border guards handed Biti over despite a court order saying he should not be deported until his appeal for asylum was heard, Zambian lawyer Gilbert Phiri told the AP. Zambia's foreign minister said Biti's reasons for seeking asylum “did not have merit.”

The UN refugee agency said it was “gravely concerned” about the reports of Biti's forced return to Zimbabwe, calling such actions a serious violation of international law.

The US State Department said the US had “convoked” the ambassadors of Zimbabwe and Zambia “to register our gravest concerns” and would review its cooperation with Zambia's government.

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