The government of Zimbabwe on Thursday imposed something like a curfew on parts of Harare, ordering bars and other establishments to close their doors at 7 p.m.
The early closing order affected populous and potentially volatile suburbs such as Mabvuku, Highfield and Kuwadzana, and the satellite town of Chitungwiza, traditional strongholds of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Also on Thursday, the Zimbabwe Republic Police published a notice in the state-controlled Herald newspaper extending a ban on all political meetings in two districts of the capital to the entirety of Harare Province for a period of three months.
It threatened penalties against “any person who organizes or assists in organizing or takes part in or attends any public demonstration or rally" in violation of the order.
On Wednesday the police had banned rallies and political gatherings in the districts of Harare South and Mbare, both strongholds of the political opposition.
Security forces stepped up their presence around the capital. Members of the public, especially those on the street or in bars late in the evening told VOA that they were accosted and beaten by members of the police, army and youth militia.
Police arrested three senior members of the MDC faction of Morgan Tsvangirai: Deputy International Relations Secretary Grace Kwinjeh, Deputy Treasurer Elton Mangoma and Kambuzuma parliamentarian Willis Madzimure. Sources close to the situation said the three were being held at the Rhodesville police station.
Their lawyer, Alec Muchadehama, said they handed themselves in to the police, who had launched a manhunt. He said they were accused of inciting supporters to attack police during a protest on Friday, Feb. 16. Muchadehama told VOA that the three were likely to be brought before a magistrate for arraignment on Friday.
Spokesman Nelson Chamisa of the Tsvangirai faction told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA’s Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that police were seeking to intimidate the party.
Human rights lawyer Jacob Mafume, who is also the coordinator of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition Coordinator, said the ban was unconstitutional and violated international human rights laws of which Zimbabwe is a signatory. He urged the opposition to defy the police ban on meetings and the partial curfew.
Residents of the Harare districts falling under the curfew said police, soldiers and members of the so-called "Green Bomber" youth militia have been beating people they found on the streets at night and forcing beerhalls and clubs to close early.
Correspondent Irwin Chifera reported that the soldiers and youth militia ordered the customers of such establishments to go home and then drank their beer.
The harsh response by the government to rising unrest and opposition political activity has led some observers to conclude that President Robert Mugabe fears he is losing control of the country. Many found that in his state television appearance on Tuesday evening he seemed resigned, pessimistic, and uncertain of the future.
Analysts said the three-month ban on political meetings and the partial curfew placed on some districts of the capital were indications the state is high alert.
Reporter Ndimiyake Mwakalyelye of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe sought perspective from two experts: Sydney Masamvu, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Southern Africa, and Brian Kagoro, a lawyer and human rights activist.
The U.S. government issued a statement condemning Harare's action on Sunday in preventing the opposition from holding a presidential campaign rally.
The US statement said Harare was “suppressing peaceful opposition political activity” when a court had said the rally could be held. The U.S. statement continued: “We call on the government of Zimbabwe to respect the country’s judicial decisions and the rule of law and allow the people of Zimbabwe to exercise their political rights.”
It said that “Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis can only be resolved through dialogue with the political opposition, with Zimbabwe’s civil society and with the people of Zimbabwe, who have made clear their desire for democratic change.”