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Release of Zimbabwe Activists Draws Praise; Election Delay Continues

Authorities in Zimbabwe have just released more than 200 Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) activists rounded up and jailed in the capital, Harare, last Friday. Amid reports of beatings and intimidation, the government denies charges of mistreatment and accuses MDC members of committing crimes and then seeking refuge at MDC party headquarters. Washington attorney Tom McDonald, who served as US ambassador to Zimbabwe during the Clinton Administration from 1997 to 2000, says he welcomes the release of the activists, but believes the government crackdown against its opponents will continue.

“I expect the violence, intimidation, and beatings to continue. Mugabe is very clever putting on the brake. He’s the consummate survivor, and so the fact that persons who were taken from Harvest House on Friday, I believe, and rounded up, were let out, that’s certainly positive news, but I don’t think any indication of a letup in their crackdown strategy, which has been mostly directed at farm areas in the Mashonalands, where ZANU-PF is particularly strong. Mugabe is up to his old tricks. This is his same playbook, and obviously, I’m happy for the victims and their families as to this release. But I wouldn’t read any particularly good indication out of that,” he said.

While conclusive results from the disputed March 29 presidential election have yet to be released by Zimbabwe’s electoral commission, it has become clear that the MDC won a majority of seats in Zimbabwe’s lower house of parliament. However, Ambassador McDonald cautions that conditions may still be perilous for prominent opposition leaders to return home from locations in neighboring countries where they went in the controversial follow-up to the vote.

“They’ve been out of the country and Morgan Tsvangirai, I know, was in South Africa and traveled up to Ghana to see President Kufuor and he saw Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. I’m sure he’s very concerned about his safety, and if I was him, I would be such. He was severely assaulted a year ago in a roundup, so I would think he’ll think once, twice, three times before he’s back in the country because the Mugabe regime is totally unpredictable as to how it might deal with him,” McDonald noted.

The former US envoy said it is highly significant that for the first time since independence, the ruling ZANU-PF has had to relinquish control of one of the houses of parliament, and he praised US Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer, who last week said the Bush administration considers Morgan Tsvangirai the clear winner of the presidential vote. McDonald says that if Harare continues to deny Zimbabweans a democratic outcome to their election and crack down on its opponents, an arms embargo would be a legitimate form of sanctions.

“I think that ought to be given serious consideration. It was an interesting week with that Chinese ship that nobody wanted. And I applaud the dockworkers in Durban who refused to unload the ship. The last I knew, it was in Angolan waters. I understood there were three million rounds of ammunition for AK-47s, mortars with tubes, and RPGs on the ship, and I think the region has collectively come together and said we’re not going to offload this and ship it to Mugabe for potential use against his own people,” he said.