Zimbabwe’s new government has come under international pressure to ensure the safety of Tendai Biti, the senior opposition figure deported back to the country after fleeing a brutal crackdown on post-election dissent.
The embassies of the US, UK and other western countries issued a joint statement calling on Emmerson Mnangagwa, the newly elected president, to protect the rights and “guarantee the physical integrity and safety” of Mr Biti, who appeared before a court in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, on Thursday.
Authorities in neighbouring Zambia returned the high-ranking member of the Movement for Democratic Change to Zimbabwe earlier in the day after refusing him asylum.
Mr Biti is a former finance minister and an outspoken opponent of Mr Mnangagwa, who was last week declared the victor in the first elections held in Zimbabwe without Robert Mugabe, its strongman of 37 years.
Nelson Chamisa, MDC’s leader, has accused the authorities of rigging the vote to ensure a win for Mr Mnangagwa, a 75 year-old former security chief who was installed as president by the army coup that toppled Mr Mugabe last year.
Even before the result of the vote soldiers unleashed a crackdown on the opposition, killing six people when they fired live-ammunition rounds into crowds of protesters last week. Mounting arrests and assaults by security forces have since forced dozens of MDC backers into hiding, activists said.
The crackdown has revived memories of violence orchestrated by the ruling Zanu-PF in past Zimbabwean elections. It threatens to blow off course plans by Mr Mnangagwa to reopen Zimbabwe’s battered economy to international investment, including seeking loans from the IMF. Hardliners in the security forces appear to have gained the upper hand, analysts say.
In their joint statement the western embassies said they were “deeply disturbed by continuing reports that opposition supporters are being targeted by members of the Zimbabwean security forces”.
Mr Biti is facing charges of inciting public violence and declaring Mr Chamisa the real winner of the election. Human Rights Watch has called the charges “trumped-up”.
Lawyers for Mr Biti wrote to Zimbabwean police accusing the security forces and “rogue elements” among their Zambian counterparts of unlawfully taking him back to Zimbabwe, despite a court appeal being launched in Zambia over the refusal of asylum.
Zambia’s foreign minister said that Mr Biti’s claim was “not meritorious” because he is facing ordinary charges in Zimbabwe.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that it was “gravely concerned” over the reports of Mr Biti’s deportation as it appeared to violate prohibition on the forcible return of refugees to countries where they face persecution.
Peter Mutharika, president of neighbouring Malawi, told the Financial Times that “if somebody comes and they are genuinely an asylum seeker” then his country’s authorities would assess their claims, including Zimbabwe opposition figures.
Mr Biti served as Zimbabwe’s finance minister in a brief unity government formed in 2008, after international condemnation of election violence forced Zanu-PF into sharing power with the MDC for five years.
Respected by investors, Mr Biti responded to the ravages of hyperinflation on the Zimbabwe dollar by de facto adopting the US dollar as the main form of exchange in use alongside the South African rand and other currencies. His policies are credited with helping return the economy to double-digit growth rates.
Harare magistrates on Thursday granted bail for Mr Biti and ordered him to surrender his passport.