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Police officers stand by as opposition party supporters gathered to hear a speech by the country's top opposition leader in Harare, Wednesday, Nov, 20, 2019. Zimbabwean police with riot gear fired tear gas and struck people who had gathered at the opposition party headquarters.

MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) - The European Union is concerned that the democratic space in Zimbabwe has deteriorated since it opened talks with Harare in June for the first time since 2001 in a bid to turn the page on years of hostile relations.

An EU memo prepared for its diplomats ahead of talks in Harare on Thursday said the arrests and abductions of several political activists had “reinforced the impression that the democratic space is being curtained again”.

The memo, seen by Reuters, also said the EU was worried by Harare’s slow pace of political reforms, including the alignment of laws to the constitution that was adopted in 2013.

The EU withdrew budget support to Zimbabwe in 2002 when it imposed sanctions on the late Robert Mugabe’s government over charges of political violence, human rights abuses, vote rigging and violent seizures of white-owned farms.

The talks this week are seen as an important step towards the EU resuming direct financial aid for the economy, which is in the grip of its worst crisis in a decade and worsened by a severe drought.

Timo Olkkonen, the EU’s ambassador in Harare, told acting foreign affairs minister July Moyo and his team at the start of the talks that reforms and inclusive political dialogue would also help with Zimbabwe’s economic recovery.

“These reforms can pave the way for a further strengthened relationship between Zimbabwe and EU based on shared values, the respect of human rights and the sustainable development goals agenda,” Olkkonen said, flanked by several EU diplomats.

Moyo said the talks would deal with all “hard issues” and were supported by President Emmerson Mnangagwa - who last month described EU and U.S. sanctions on Zimbabwe as a “cancer” sapping the economy.

With the economy afflicted by dollar shortages, fuel queues, power-cuts, and soaring prices, Mnangagwa has said restoring ties with the West and multilateral lenders like International Monetary Fund is one of his major priorities.

But, like Mugabe, he blames sanctions for the country’s economic ills and says they are designed to remove the ruling ZANU-PF party from power. Critics also say that since Mnangagwa came to power, he has cracked down on opposition parties.

This week, Zimbabwean police used batons, tear gas and water cannon to beat up and disperse supporters of the main opposition party trying to listen to a speech by their leader.

In its memo, the EU noted Zimbabwe had made progress by deciding not to enforce its empowerment law, which would have required all foreign investors to cede at least 51% of their shares in local operations to Zimbabweans.

The memo also said the interim compensation of white farmers whose land was seized by the government was a positive gesture towards re-opening export markets in the European Union.

In a budget statement last week, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube set aside $24 million to compensate white farmers, 768 of whom had consented to the interim compensation scheme. (Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by David Clarke)

Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, and David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, arrive to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of Pr

A former key official on the White House National Security Council told the impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump on Thursday that it is a "fictional narrative" that Ukraine, and not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election that Trump won.

Fiona Hill, in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, directly contradicted Trump, who only occasionally has said it was possible Russia intervened in the election, while saying he accepts Russian President Vladimir Putin's denial that Moscow interfered to support him.

In a July 25 call that is central to the impeachment inquiry, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy "to do us a favor," to investigate one of his chief 2020 Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the debunked theory that Ukraine worked in 2016 to help Trump's Democratic challenger, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Hill, who until earlier this year was the security council's top Russia adviser, said, "Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves."

She said, "The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified."

Hill pleaded with the Intelligence panel, "In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests."

She said claims that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election "are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes."

"President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a Super PAC," Hill said. "They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives. When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each another, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy."

Hill later said "it appears to be" that Trump listened to conjecture about Ukraine trying to undermine his 2016 election from Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney whom he had named to oversee U.S.-Ukraine relations, sidelining normal Washington-Kyiv connections handled by the State Department.

But Hill emphasized that there was "no basis" for the theory that Ukraine interfered in the election. She also said she was not aware of any evidence supporting allegations of wrongdoing by Biden or connected to his son Hunter Biden's work for a Ukrainian natural gas company.

Hill, testifying on the fifth day of the impeachment inquiry, was the second Trump administration official in two days to directly confront Trump's narrative about his dealings with Zelenskiy and thoughts on Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Gordon Sondland, the Trump-selected U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told the Intelligence panel that the president and top officials in his administration were at the center of a quid pro quo plan, Trump's efforts to get Ukraine to open the investigation of the Bidens and the 2016 election before he would agree to a White House meeting with Zelenskiy. At the same time, Trump was temporarily blocking release of $391 million in U.S. military aid Kyiv wanted to fight pro-Russian separatists.

Trump again denied any reciprocal deal between the military assistance and the investigations on Wednesday. Republicans on the Intelligence panel won acknowledgement from Sondland that Trump had not given him any direct orders linking the investigations to a White House meeting or the release of the military aid. Sondland said he presumed the linkage based on conversations with Giuliani, who was acting at the behest of Trump on Ukraine matters.
In a Twitter comment Thursday ahead of Hill's testimony, Trump complained about the coverage of Sondland's testimony, saying, "The Republican Party, and me, had a GREAT day yesterday with respect to the phony Impeachment Hoax, & yet, when I got home to the White House & checked out the news coverage on much of television, you would have no idea they were reporting on the same event. FAKE & CORRUPT NEWS!"

David Holmes, a career Foreign Service officer who works in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, also testified Thursday, relating a cell phone conversation he overheard July 26 at a Kyiv restaurant when Sondland called Trump, the day after the president's conversation with Zelenskiy.

Holmes said he overheard the Trump-Sondland call because Trump's voice was loud, and Sondland held the phone away from his ear.

Holmes said Sondland in the call assured Trump that Zelenskiy "loves your ass." Sondland testified Wednesday that the comment "sounds like something I would say."

"So, he's gonna do the investigation?" Holmes quoted Trump as asking. Sondland, according to Holmes, replied, "He's gonna do it," while adding that Zelenskiy will do "anything you ask him to do."

Holmes said he later asked Sondland if Trump cared about Ukraine, with Sondland agreeing that Trump did not "give a s**t about Ukraine." Sondland testified he did not recall this remark but did not rebut Holmes's account.

"I asked why not," Holmes recalled, "And Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about big stuff. I noted that there was big stuff going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia, and Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant big stuff that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation."

In an apparent attempt to undercut Holmes's testimony based on overhearing his conversation with Sondland, Trump tweeted, "I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great. Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!"

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