More than 50 labour and pro-democracy activists were arrested in Zimbabwe on Tuesday as they assembled in preparation for a march to protest alleged rights abuses and massive price hikes.
Scores of people had managed to assemble in the centre of the capital, Harare, for the march to the ministry of finance, which was scheduled for mid-day, but truckloads of heavily armed riot police successfully broke up the demonstration before it could get underway.
Among those who were arrested were the president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Lovemore Matombo, and the union's secretary-general, Wellington Chibhebhe.
Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, Brian Raftopolous, the head of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, and the director of Transparency Zimbabwe International, John Makumbe, were also arrested.
Speaking from police custody at Harare Central police station, Madhuku said the activists had not been charged.
"What we are seeing is the reaction of a desperate regime, which is prepared to use heavy-handed tactics to deny Zimbabwean citizens basic rights and freedoms of association and expression," Madhuku told IRIN.
Under Zimbabwean law, the police must give permission for all demonstrations, a condition which rights activists say has curtailed basic freedoms.
Part of the petition that was to have been handed over to the minister of finance read: "Almost every worker is taxed up to 45 percent of his or her wages and benefits, yet there is nothing to show for it. Our health delivery system, transport, educational system and all services have collapsed. In the context of the deepening crisis, workers and Zimbabweans in general can no longer enjoy basic economic rights such as the right to food, health, education, shelter, affordable accomodation, employment and security, among others."
The arrest of the union and civic leaders came a day after Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo visited Zimbabwe and held separate meetings with President Robert Mugabe and opposition Movement for Democratic Change president, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Media reports this week said Obasanjo had called on Mugabe to repeal the strict Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which has led to the banning of the country's sole independent daily newspaper, The Daily News.
Obasanjo also reportedly urged Mugabe to improve human rights and other basic freedoms if he is to be invited to the Commonwealth Heads of State and Governments summit (CHOGM), to be held in Abuja, Nigeria, next month.
The BBC reported on Tuesday that Mugabe, who has not yet received an invitation, was anxious to attend the meeting. "We must be allowed to attend the CHOGM 2003 in Abuja because we are a full member of the Commonwealth," Mugabe was quoted by the state news agency, Ziana, as saying.
Key Commonwealth members Britain and Australia have argued against Mugabe's presence at the summit, calling for fresh elections and a commitment from authorities to address allegations of rights abuses before an invitation could be issued.
Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth's governing councils in March 2002, following a report by a Commonwealth observation team that Mugabe's re-election had been marked by violence and vote rigging.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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