By FARAI MUTSAKA and ANDREW MELDRUM, Associated Press
HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Senior Zimbabwean opposition figure Tendai Biti was in police custody on Thursday after Zambia rejected his asylum bid and deported him, as fears grew about a government crackdown following Zimbabwe’s disputed election.
Biti was at Harare Central Police Station, where lawyers representing him were in discussion with police, said Roselyn Hanzi of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
Zambian border guards handed Biti to Zimbabwean authorities despite a Zambian court order saying he should not be deported until it could hear his appeal for asylum, Zambian lawyer Gilbert Phiri told The Associated Press.
“Zambian authorities acted in defiance of our courts, in defiance of regional and international law,” Phiri said. Zambia’s foreign minister said Biti’s reasons for seeking asylum “did not have merit.”
Biti’s plight has raised concerns about a wave of repression against the opposition by the government of Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who narrowly won last week’s election. It comes as the opposition prepares to launch a legal challenge to last week’s voting results, calling them fraudulent.
“This is a worrying development,” said David Coltart, a friend of Biti’s who is a fellow member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and a human rights lawyer. “Tendai was arrested in 2008 on a similar charge and while he was in custody he was brutally tortured.”
The United Nations refugee agency said it was “gravely concerned” about the reports of Biti’s forced return to Zimbabwe, calling such returns a serious violation of international law. It urged Zambian authorities to urgently investigate.
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 Biti’s safety and respect his rights. It also said the diplomats were “deeply disturbed” by the reports of Zimbabwean security forces targeting the opposition.
Biti, a former finance minister and newly elected member of parliament for the MDC, is wanted by Zimbabwe’s police for allegedly inciting violence after urging opposition supporters to defend their votes in the disputed election, and for announcing that MDC candidate Nelson Chamisa had won the presidential race.
Authorities say it is against the law to declare the winner of an election before the official results are announced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
A day after Biti’s remarks, the military opened fire to disperse opposition protesters in the streets of Zimbabwe’s capital, 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.
While Mnangagwa has hailed a “flowering” of democracy in Zimbabwe since longtime leader Robert Mugabe stepped down in November under military pressure, alarm has been growing inside and outside the country.
The British embassy in Zimbabwe said Thursday it had spoken with Zimbabwean and Zambian authorities overnight to seek “clear assurances” that Biti’s safety would be guaranteed. The United States’ top diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, urged Zambian authorities to allow Biti to stay or allow him safe passage to a third country.
There was no immediate statement from Zimbabwean authorities, but the state-run Herald newspaper in an “editorial comment” said Biti “sneaked into Zambia in a bid to evade the law.”
It also urged Zambian authorities to respect Interpol and not the U.N. convention on refugees, which rejects the returning of asylum-seekers to the countries they have fled.
Under Mugabe’s 37 years in power, Zimbabwe was dogged by charges of rigged and fraudulent elections, along with violence against opposition figures.
Biti, one of the most outspoken critics of the government, was quick to warn that while the ouster of Mugabe was welcome, the military takeover that led to his resignation set a dangerous precedent for its involvement in civilian affairs.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” Biti said in June.
Meldrum contributed from Johannesburg.