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Zimbabwe opposition leader detained after Zambia asylum bid fails

Tendai Biti has long been an outspoken critic of the government.

Senior Zimbabwean opposition figure Tendai Biti is in police custody after Zambia rejected his asylum bid and deported him, as fears grew about a government crackdown following Zimbabwe’s disputed election.

Mr Biti pledged to “keep on fighting” as he arrived at court in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, where he will be charged with inciting public violence and declaring “unofficial or fake” election results.

If convicted of the first charge, he could face up to a decade in prison, according to police spokeswoman Charity Charamba.

Separately, the opposition is preparing a legal challenge to last week’s election results, calling them fraudulent.

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Mr Biti attempted to claim asylum in Zambia (AP)

Mr 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.

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

The letter said Mr 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 look over Mr Biti before then.

Zambian border guards handed Mr Biti to Zimbabwean authorities despite a court order saying he should not be deported until it could hear his appeal for asylum, Zambian lawyer Gilbert Phiri said.

Zambia’s foreign minister said Mr Biti’s reasons for seeking asylum “did not have merit”.

The United Nations’ refugee agency said it was “gravely concerned” about the reports of Mr Biti’s forced return to Zimbabwe, calling such returns a serious violation of international law.

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Mr Biti’s detention has sparked fears of a crackdown on opposition figures despite reform calls (AP)

A joint statement by the heads of missions in Zimbabwe of the European Union, the United States, Canada and Australia urgently called on Zimbabwean authorities to guarantee Mr Biti’s safety and respect his rights.

It said diplomats were “deeply disturbed” by reports of security forces targeting the opposition.

David Coltart, a friend of Biti’s who is a fellow member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and a human rights lawyer, said: “This is a worrying development.

“Tendai was arrested in 2008 on a similar charge and while he was in custody he was brutally tortured.”

A day after the July 30 vote, Mr Biti, a former finance minister and newly elected member of parliament for the MDC, urged opposition supporters to defend their votes in the disputed ballot, saying that MDC candidate Nelson Chamisa had won the presidential race.

Authorities say it is against the law to declare an election winner before the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announces the official results.

The day after Mr Biti’s remarks, the military opened fire to disperse opposition protesters in the streets of Harare, killing six people.

Western election observers, whose endorsement of a credible election is badly needed for the lifting of international sanctions on Zimbabwe, quickly condemned the “excessive” force.

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The Movement for Democratic Change has said the elections were flawed and fraudulent (AP)

While Mr Mnangagwa has hailed a “flowering” of democracy in Zimbabwe since Mr Mugabe stepped down in November under military pressure, alarm has been growing inside and outside the country.

The British embassy in Zimbabwe said it has spoken with Zimbabwean and Zambian authorities overnight to seek “clear assurances” that Mr Biti’s safety would be guaranteed.

The United States’ top diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, urged Zambian authorities to allow Mr Biti to stay or allow him safe passage to a third country.

Under Mr Mugabe’s 37 years in power, Zimbabwe was dogged by charges of rigged and fraudulent elections, along with violence against opposition figures.

Mr Biti, one of the most outspoken critics of the government, was quick to warn that while the removal of Robert Mugabe was welcome, the military takeover that led to his resignation set a dangerous precedent for its involvement in civilian affairs.

He said in June: “The genie is out of the bottle.”

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