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ZIMBABWE: Abduction threatens unity government

HARARE, 13 February 2009 (IRIN) - The future of Zimbabwe's 48-hour-old unity government may hang in the balance after a leading member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was abducted by police outside the capital, Harare, on 13 February.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was installed as prime minister on 11 February, while President Robert Mugabe retained the executive post he has held for 29 years in a deal designed to heal the political divisions that have brought the once prosperous country to its knees.

The MDC said in a statement on 13 February: "Roy Bennett, MDC Treasurer General and Deputy Minister of Agriculture designate, has just been abducted by police from the Law and Order section at Prince Charles airport, just outside Harare. The police were led by one Assistant Commissioner Nyongwe."

Bennett, arrested little more than an hour before Zimbabwe swore in 36 cabinet ministers from across the political spectrum, was expected to be installed as a deputy minister next week.

Richard Cornwall, a senior researcher at the South Africa-based think-tank, the Institute for Security Studies, told IRIN the abduction bore the hallmark of "hardliners" attempting to "scupper this deal [unity government] before it gets off the ground."

He said the focus has been on the divisions between Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai's MDC, but recent developments showed "what sort of divisions exist within ZANU-PF, not all of who agree with the unity government." The next few days would determine Mugabe's "ability to bring the hardliners to heel," he commented.

Cornwall said it was understood that the "hardliners" were from the Joint Operations Committee (JOC), which comprised security chiefs of the army, police, Central Intelligence Organisation and the prisons department, and was coordinated by Emmerson Mnangagwa, at one time a presidential pretender.

The appointment of Bennett, a white farmer whose land was taken during the government's fast-track land reform programme in 2000, may have been seen as "a signal" to ZANU-PF hardliners that the MDC would renegotiate land ownership in Zimbabwe, Cornwall said.

Bennett fled his homeland and spent three years in exile after being accused of plotting to kill Mugabe, and only returned to Zimbabwe a few days ahead of Tsvangirai's inauguration.

Signs of tension

Indications that the unity government was facing severe challenges came within 24 hours of Tsvangirai assuming office, when he visited detainees ahead of their release from Harare's high-security Chikurubi prison.

A few hours earlier on 12 February, the Harare Magistrate's Court ordered the release of Jestina Mukoko, a veteran journalist and human rights activist, and two MDC activists accused of undergoing military training in neighbouring Botswana in order to topple Mugabe's government.

Harrison Nkomo, one of the lawyers representing the more than 30 detained activists, including Mukoko, told IRIN the three detainees had initially been taken to a private hospital in Harare after their release was ordered.

"Prison officers later came during the afternoon on Thursday [12 February] and returned them to the high-security prison complex before [taking] them [back to the hospital] at midnight. A private doctor and a government medical officer have examined the three, and they both agreed that they needed urgent medical attention."

Nkomo told IRIN the government was opposed to the three detainees receiving medical attention. "There is no doubt that they need urgent medical attention. For example, when Jestina was abducted on December 3 in 2008, she weighed 70kg but now she weighs 52kg, meaning she has lost 18kg in the two months that she has been detained."

At his inauguration, Tsvangirai said the jailed activists would not "remain in those dungeons any day or any week longer". Bennett's whereabouts remained unknown at the time of writing.

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Theme(s): (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Human Rights

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Copyright © IRIN 2009
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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