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Zimbabwe Police Pressure Mobile Provider to Release FM Biti's Phone Records

  • Gibbs Dube

The Criminal Investigation Department’s serious fraud squad has opened an investigation into alleged abuse of office in the Finance Ministry which has already led to the arrest of five senior officials there

A Zimbabwean magistrate has given police in Harare a warrant ordering mobile phone operator Econet to release Finance Minister Tendai Biti’s cellular phone records under an investigation said to be aimed bringing corruption charges against Biti, secretary general of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangiri’s Movement for Democratic Change.

Biti in court papers has charged that the investigation is the work of unnamed rogue elements who are seeking to destabilize the national unity government.

Political analysts said arresting Biti as the police, according to sources, are determined to do, would seriously jeopardize the rickety power-sharing government.

The Criminal Investigation Department’s serious fraud squad has opened an investigation into alleged abuse of office in the Finance Ministry which has already led to the arrest of five senior officials there.

Civil rights advocates have expressed concern that the police have made use of the 2007 Interception of Communications Act empowering the government to open mail, tap phones and hack into e-mail and other Internet communications media.

Biti through his lawyers has filed three separate High Court applications seeking to bar police from accessing his phone records, calling the police request harassment.

He cited the gasoline bombing of his house in early June and a more recent invasion of his offices by militants associated with President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.

"I submit that the release of the information requested is unlawful and unconstitutional as it violates my right to privacy and protection of the law," Biti stated. He said that such information if released "will be prejudicial" to him and his party.

Biti’s legal advisers say the High Court will rule in the case on Wednesday. Lawyers for Econet said the company will await that decision before acting on the police request.

National Constituitional Assembly Chairman Lovemore Madhuku, a law professor at the University of Zimbabwe, told VOA reporter Blessing Zulu that the Interception Act should only be used in extraordinary circumstances, not for an apparent fishing expedition.

Officials and members of Mr. Tsvangirai's MDC formation have been arrested in recent months on charges that have turned out to be flimsy. Energy Minister Elton Mangoma was recently acquitted on charges he misused his office in purchasing fuel.

Five finance ministry officials remain in police hands at Harare Central Police station in connection with the same investigation targeting Biti, one of them accused of defrauding the state of thousands of dollars for unsanctioned foreign trips and others for allegedly failing to observe tender procedures for awarding contracts.

Sources said fiscal analyst Petronella Chishawa, Linda Kembo and three others were picked up between last Thursday and Sunday to help police with investigations.

Police, who declined to comment, were said to be looking for a fourth person in connection with the case.

The sources said Chishawa is accused of going on unapproved foreign trips between December 2010 and May 2011, receiving a US$500 daily allowance for 90 days.

The sources said police also allege she and other Treasury workers bought materials for a Euromoney conference in Harare in March without going through a tender.

The amount involved was US$5,000, the sources said.

Economic commentator Masimba Kuchera told VOA reporter Gibbs Dube that the arrests suggest government finance systems are in disarray.

But political analyst Nkululeko Sibanda said the arrests look like an attempt by police with close links to ZANU-PF to intimidate Biti.

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