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Zimbabwe's Parliament Approves Controversial Amendments to Constitution


Zimbabwe's parliament changed the constitution Tuesday. Critics say the changes undermine several rights and freedoms. In one controversial provision, the constitutional amendments make it impossible for anyone whose property is nationalized to appeal to the courts.

Ruling ZANU-PF legislators turned out in force and easily had the 100 votes the party needed for a two-thirds majority to change the constitution. This was the 17th time since independence from Britain 25 years ago that the constitution has been changed.

Owners of private property, nationalized by the state now have no right to appeal the seizure to the courts. Since 2000, militants, with the support of the government, have taken over the farms of about 3,500 white commercial farmers. Most of those farmers still have legal cases pending that contest the confiscations.

Civil rights activist Lovemore Madhuku, who has campaigned for constitutional reform for many years, says ruling party legislators, many of whom were given parcels of seized land, believe the confiscations are now a settled issue. "They are trying to say that they have resolved the land question, that no one is going to take land away from them because for most of those who voted have a personal interest, you have taken a farm, you have someone who is suing you in the courts, and you just now know no one is going to follow you up," he said.

Another constitutional amendemnt allows the government to seize passports of any citizen accused of damaging what it asserts is the national interest. After parliament adjourned, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who drafted the amendments, explained why he believes this new provision was necessary.

"We are sending a very clear signal to our citizens they cannot travel width and breadth of the world using a Zimbabwe passport to canvass for military invasion, of Zimbabwe to lobby for official and unoffical sanctions against their own people, to lobby for the isolation of Zimbabwe... That is unacceptable and will not be allowed," he said.

Opponents fear the amendment is intended as a way to silence dissent. Opposition member of parliament Tendai Biti said the constitutional amendments were a tragic development in Zimbabwe and undermined the foundations of democracy.

Mr. Biti said South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has offered to provide some financial assistance to Zimbabwe in return for political and economic reform, should take notice of the clear message from President Mugabe contained in the constitutional amendments. "This (bill) is really a slap in the face to those who still believe that this regime can be helped. It is an infringement and a molestation of all international standards.... So this further removes the ground and the carpet from those like President Mbeki who still believe there is merit in supporting the entrenched regime in Harare," he said.

Ruling party legislators celebrated after the amendments were adopted.

The measures were approved as representatives of the International Monetary Fund remain in Harare, mulling over Zimbabwe's possible expulsion because it has failed to pay its debt of nearly $300 million.

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