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Opposition Leader Tendai Biti Asylum Case Tests Zimbabwe-Zambia Relations

FILE: Tendai Biti (center) of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, speak to reporters in Harare, July 12, 2018.
FILE: Tendai Biti (center) of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, speak to reporters in Harare, July 12, 2018.

A Zimbabwean lawyer travelling with one of the principals of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, Tendai Biti, who fled to Zambia to seek asylum following alleged threats to his life, says contrary to reports that Biti was denied bail, they have not yet heard directly from Zambian authorities on the matter.

“The application was done in the morning, and up to now, we have not had formal communication as to what the position of the Zambian government is on the application,” said Nqobizitha Milo, who is with Biti at a police station at the Chirundu Border Post, on the Zambian side of the border with Zimbabwe.

According to Human Rights Watch senior researcher Dewa Mavhinga, the two are among several other MDC Alliance activists seeking political asylum in Zambia. They include civil society activist Zachariah Godi, and opposition activists Tawanda Chitekwe, Kudakwashe Simbaneuta, and Clever Rambanepasi – who lodged their application for asylum at the Chirundu border post. They are represented by attorney Gilbert Phiri, who was not reachable for comment.

Various media, including the Washington Post, have reported that Biti, who arrived in Zambia in the early hours of Wednesday morning, was denied asylum because the application “did not have merit”.

The Post and Lusaka Times quoted Zambia’s Foreign Minister Joseph Malanji. The Times reported that Zambian authorities were planning to deport Biti back to Zimbabwe, which has charged Biti with public violence and “unlawfully and unofficially declaring” opposition MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa the winner of the July 30th elections, prior to the official announcement of results by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

Mlilo said Biti was not under arrest and that the Zambian police are in fact protecting him from suspected members of Zimbabwe’s state security agency.

“He is not under detention,” Mlilo said, adding that the Zambian authorities were treating his him very well. “So where he is right now is at a police station and the police officers on the Zambian side have been extremely helpful in providing him with security.”

Mlilo said in the event that Biti is denied asylum, Zambia is mandated under international law to send him where he chooses, where he feels safe.

“If what we are hearing in the news and social media is anything to go by, if the Zambian government is of the opinion that they are not willing to offer him asylum, international law provides that he must be given right of free passage,” said Mlilo.

“Biti must then indicate which country he wants to go to and then the Zambian government must then facilitate that he goes to that country and seek asylum in that country,” Mlilo elaborated.

Amos Chanda, spokesman for Zambian president Edgar Lungu, said Biti was in safe hands.

“He (Biti) has not been turned over (to Zimbabwe authorities) as I am telling you. He’s within Zambian territory, on the side of the Zambian border in safe custody because circumstances under which he’s being pursued are not well known. So, the Zambian authorities have to establish whether those pursuing him as Zimbabwe authorities are a militia, or are a group of people who are not identified. It is the responsibility of the Zambian security services to act swiftly, especially if he’s at the Zambian border.

“As we now understand, the Zimbabwe authorities are looking for Mr. Tendai Biti to answer to charges of public disorder, something of that sort, inciting violence. If indeed that is the charge for which he’s being looked for, the Zambian authorities will required a secured guarantees that he will face a fair justice; he will be tried before a fair tribunal in a court of justice, and he will not be subjected to any inhuman treatment. If those guarantees are given, a consideration might be given to turn him over. As I am speaking to you, he’s not.

On Biti’s asylum request, he said, “Those papers have not been launched. When that has been done, the Zambian authorities are going to inform the international community, will inform the Zimbabwe authorities, the sister Republic of Zimbabwe that that request has been made. As for now, no formal request has been made.”

Biti, a former finance minister and also head of his own political party, the People’s Democratic Party, which is part of the MDC Alliance, has not spoken publicly since the issuance of the warrant for his arrest last week on accusations of declaring Chamisa, without releasing figures, the winner of the presidential election.

ZEC says it is illegal to release results of an election before its own official announcement.

He is also accused of being the brainchild of protests in Harare last Wednesday over delays in releasing presidential election results. Incumbent president Emmerson Mnangagwa won the presidential poll after amassing 50.8 percent of the votes cast compared to Chamisa’s 44.3 percent.

Mlilo, however said his client’s life is clearly in danger, and that they saw evidence of that in Zambia when Biti arrived, after driving from Zimbabwe.

“It appears some that some elements of the Zimbabwean officials got to know about it and attempted to abduct him at the border. Fortunately the Zambian authorities were quite helpful and they managed to get him into the offices to speak to him,” said Mlilo, while describing a dramatic scene at the police station. “There was a big scuffle that happened outside the border post and ordinary people and women, who were going into Zambia helped in ensuring that he was taken into the office. They offered basically human security to him, and that explains how he was able to get into the offices of the Zambian officials.”

VOA Zimbabwe Service failed to reach Zambian or Zimbabwean officials for comment. However, Gadzira Chirumanzu, a Zanu-PF activist said there is no basis for Biti to seek asylum in Zambia, if he has done nothing wrong.

“There is nothing that our brother Tendai Biti is running away from,” said Chirumanzu. The courts are there. If he knows that he has done nothing, completely nothing, he has to come and face the law.”

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, says he has been putting pressure of the U.S. authorities to address the issue.

“What we are trying to do is raise the necessary international alarm bells, to keep attention focused on his case because I think his case personally is not isolated, it is part of a wider crackdown on dissenting voices, on political opposition, and certainly on civil society with reports we’ve seen coming in of people going into hiding,” said Smith.

Zimbabwe is under pressure from various international countries, including the United States, to address the issue of post-election harassment and intimidation.