JOHANNESBURG - With only three weeks to go before Zimbabwe's
presidential runoff, the police briefly detained the opposition's
standard-bearer, Morgan Tsvangirai, on Friday for the second time
this week and directed his party to cancel political rallies,
effectively preventing him from addressing voters.
Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition presidential candidate,
campaigning Friday. The police, citing concerns about safety for
his party's leaders, ordered the cancellation of rallies he had
At the same time, the Zimbabwean government's requirement that
all nongovernmental organizations suspend their aid operations,
which grew out of the authorities' allegations that some were
supporting the opposition, was condemned Friday by officials in
the United States and Europe, as well as the United Nations.
Relief agencies said the order, issued this week, would deprive
millions of desperately poor Zimbabweans of food aid and other
basic assistance. Unicef, for example, depends on 25
nongovernmental organizations to provide education, health care
and food to 185,000 orphans in Zimbabwe.
"It's a horrible situation," said James Elder, Unicef's spokesman
in Zimbabwe. "The children and their families continue to find
stoic means of surviving, but this is a profoundly disturbing
blow to them. We can't reach these children today."
Similarly, the World Food Program said on Friday that the
prohibition on aid operations would prevent "314,000 of the most
vulnerable people in the country" - the elderly, the disabled,
schoolchildren, tuberculosis patients and "H.I.V.-positive
bedridden" people - from receiving food this month.
World Vision, another large relief agency, said it had planned to
feed about 400,000 people in Zimbabwe in June and was
particularly concerned about the welfare of the 1.3 million
children under 5 who had been orphaned by AIDS.
President Robert Mugabe has led Zimbabwe, which has a population
of about 13 million, for almost three decades. In the past few
years, the country's economy has gone into free fall, with more
than four in five people unemployed and prices of food staples
sent into the stratosphere by hyperinflation. The space for
peaceful political protest keeps shrinking, according to
officials of Mr. Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic
The party said it had received a written notice from the police
that rallies it had planned in impoverished townships of the
capital, Harare, would have to be canceled because the safety of
party leaders could not be guaranteed - a seemingly paradoxical
rationale, given that the police had confiscated Mr. Tsvangirai's
armored vehicle on Wednesday.
The government's decision to block rallies is a blow to Mr.
Tsvangirai, a charismatic figure who drew large, enthusiastic
crowds before the March election.
He has survived three assassination attempts and was severely
beaten by the police in March 2007. In the voting 10 weeks ago,
he finished first, but according to official returns he did not
have the majority he needed to avoid a runoff election against
Mr. Tsvangirai left the country not long after that election,
fearing another assassination attempt. He returned to Zimbabwe
two weeks ago, but he has since been unable to campaign freely
for the June 27 runoff vote.
Opposition officials said Mr. Tsvangirai was detained on
Wednesday for nine hours and again on Friday for two hours. He
was stopped at a roadblock on his way to a rally not far from
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, and sent to a police
station for questioning.
A police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena, blamed the opposition for
Mr. Tsvangirai's most recent detention, alleging that the
candidate's convoy crashed through a roadblock, according to
Zimbabwean police officers and soldiers detained a contingent of
American diplomats for five hours on Thursday at a roadblock,
slashing the tires of their vehicle after a six-mile chase. The
diplomats had been investigating state-sponsored violence against
the opposition. The Bush administration has expressed outrage at
the police action. The State Department said it would seek a
discussion by the United Nations Security Council of the
mistreatment of its diplomats.
The Zimbabwean authorities have been aggressively using the
state's power to detain and arrest many of those whom they regard
as a threat to the governing party's hold on power. They have
also been forcefully exerting the state's monopolistic control
over television, radio and the nation's only daily newspaper.
This week, eight employees of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting
Corporation were sent on leave for two months - a step that the
Media Institute of Southern Africa said "can reasonably be
perceived as the deliberate purging of journalists at the state
broadcaster for the purposes of partisan political expediency."
The state news media's coverage of Mr. Tsvangirai, a former trade
union leader who has led the opposition for almost a decade, is
deeply hostile. He is typically depicted as a coward, a fool and
a stooge of Britain, the former colonial power. Zimbabweans have
a powerful informal grapevine, spurred by the technology of the
text message, but rallies were Mr. Tsvangirai's principal means
of communicating directly with voters.
To tell a man like Mr. Tsvangirai he cannot speak at rallies is
"like telling a pastor not to read the Bible," said an opposition
spokesman, Nelson Chamisa, who added, "That's depriving a
politician of the oxygen that helps keep a political institution
alive and kicking."