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Zimbabwe Parliament Passes Tough Detention Laws - 2004-06-30

Zimbabwe's parliament, controlled by President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, passed new detention laws Wednesday, described by the opposition as the most repressive in the country's history. The laws extend the amount of time prisoners can be detained under security legislation, without an appearance in court, from 48 hours to more than three weeks.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change's legal secretary David Coltart told parliament the new detention laws for a wide range of political offenses are reminiscent of those in force during apartheid in South Africa.

He said the laws are the most repressive of any nation in the Southern African Development Community and would widely affect freedom of political activity in the run up to parliamentary elections in eight months.

Zimbabwean police can now detain people for more than three weeks before they can apply for bail on a range of so-called political offenses, such as passive resistance and discussing a work stoppage.

The escalation of what has been described by many political commentators as repressive legislation was presented in parliament as amendments to laws about detention for those arrested on suspicion of corruption.

Within the clauses on corruption are several which also affect section five of the Public Order and Security Act, which became law just before the disputed presidential election of 2002. The election gave Mr. Mugabe six more years in power.

Last week, most Zanu-PF members of parliament boycotted the second reading of the bill, extending detention for those arrested on suspicion of corruption. In response to the boycott, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa relaxed some of the provisions for detention on corruption crimes but left in place those for political offenses.

Section five of the security act, which now allows for 23 days of detention before any bail application, makes it an offense to, in its words, subvert the government by planning to, or taking part in civil disobedience, whether such resistance is active or passive. Such activity is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Although hundreds of opposition activists have been arrested under this law in the last two years, and several were tortured in detention, court records show they were usually brought to court to apply for bail within 48 hours. Now they will have to wait for more than three weeks.

In August Mr. Mugabe is expected to ask the Southern African Development Community, in particular South Africa, to endorse some electoral reforms announced last week, which the opposition has said are largely cosmetic.