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US: Political Intimidation Behind Zimbabwe Treason Charges - 2002-02-26

The United States has rejected the treason charges brought against Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The State Department linked the move to a broader campaign of political intimidation by President Robert Mugabe and his associates in the run-up to next month's elections.

The Bush administration has been a consistent critic of pre-election moves by Mr. Mugabe against the political opposition, Zimbabwe's independent press and the foreign news media. And it is casting the treason charge against opposition presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai as yet another step in that process.

Briefing reporters here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the move to prosecute the candidate comes against the backdrop of a well-documented campaign of violence and intimidation against the opposition.

Mr. Boucher said, "We are aware of no convincing evidence that there's any basis for these allegations. It just appears to be another tragic example of President Mugabe's increasingly authoritarian rule, and his government's apparent determination to intimidate and repress the opposition as we approach the March ninth and tenth presidential election."

The White House late last week announced the imposition of targeted travel sanctions against Mr. Mugabe, his close associates and their families this, after the government in Harare expelled the head of the European Union observer mission to the March elections.

The EU withdrew the rest of its observers and imposed more sweeping penalties against Mr. Mugabe and his ruling circle, including both a travel ban and a freeze on their assets.

President Bush is empowered under an act of Congress approved last year to impose broader U.S. sanctions, though officials here say a decision will await the actual conduct of the election.

In a written statement last Friday, the White House there was still time for Zimbabwe's government to reverse its campaign of harassment and allow a "legitimate" vote.

It stressed U.S. support and friendship for the people of Zimbabwe and said President Bush hopes they will again soon enjoy political and economic freedoms.