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Crackdown On Zimbabwe Opposition Seen As 2008 Election Strategy

Less than a year ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections that are hoped by some to crown South African mediation in Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis, the Harare government is continuing a campaign of harassment and beatings of opposition officials and members, forcing many activists to go underground.

The state crackdown also targets allies of the Movement for Democratic Change such as the National Constitutional Assembly and the Zimbabwe National Students Union.

Police have held the entire office staff of the MDC faction led by party founder Morgan Tsvangirai since a March 28 raid on its Harare headquarters, and have ignored a court order for them to return computers and other equipment seized that day. The continued detention of MDC staff has severely constrained party operations.

Opposition officials say the abduction and beating of activists also continues.

MDC officials abducted since Friday included deputy organizing secretary Morgan Komichi, party employee Dennis Murira and his wife Lilian, activist Shame Wakatama and Elliot Motsi, the faction’s Glenorah organizing secretary.

Police also arrested two unnamed employees of detained Tsvangirai faction elections director Ian Makoni. Faction lawyer Alec Muchadehama said their whereabouts were unknown, as police had refused to provide information on their cases.

Muchadehama told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA’s Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that there is no justice for opposition officials and members in the Zimbabwean courts as police continue to delay hearings and alter the charges whenever a hearing takes place.

Police have alleged that the opposition officials, members and staff being held were implicated in firebombing attacks in late March. Opposition officials say security forces staged the Molotov cocktail attacks to provide a pretext for the crackdown.

Two student activists were abducted Thursday in Bulawayo. Trust Nhubu and Vanencio Jachi of the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo were seized at a bar after attending a public meeting organized by Transparency International and the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development. The focus of the meeting was the government's move to take over municipal water operations.

Nhubu was dumped in Tsholotsho, about 125 kilometers outside Bulawayo; Jachi said he was taken to a house in Bulawayo where he was tortured by state agents.

Spokesman Nelson Chamisa of the Tsvangirai faction said the crackdown is intended to divert the opposition grouping's attention from the presidential and parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled by the ruling party for March 2008.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, named in late March by the Southern African Development Community as its mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis, has declared that his prime objective is to ensure that those elections will be free and fair.

But MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said Mr. Mbeki's effort could be compromised by what many observers see as methodical repression of the opposition.

Political analyst John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe said it seems clear that Harare is trying to intimidate and reduce the opposition in the run-up to the elections - but that it will be difficult to carry this point with Mr. Mbeki, who has made clear he does not want either side to set conditions for engaging in his mediation process.

Tsvangirai told reporters April 12 that state security agents had abducted, beaten and tortured more than 600 activists. Police have confirmed three deaths.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...