The International Association of Political Consultants has awarded its Democracy Medal to Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The prize is given each year to distinguished pro-democracy activists. Mr. Tsvangirai is banned from traveling abroad and could not accept the prize in person.

To loud applause from the gathering, the International Association of Political Consultants presented the democracy medal to Gift Chimanikire a top member of Mr. Tsvangirai's opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.

Mr. Tsvangirai, who is accused of treason by President Robert Mugabe's government, is not allowed to travel outside of Zimbabwe. Mr. Tsvangirai ran against Mr. Mugabe for President in March, in elections which are widely believed to have been stolen. Mr. Mugabe has governed the African nation since its independence in 1980.

In accepting the democracy medal, Mr. Chimanikire read a letter from the opposition leader in which he expressed gratitude to the Association.

"I find this singular honor specifically motivatory, not only to me personally, but to the millions of struggling Zimbabweans who have watched their sovereignty and democratic space forcibly seized from them by the Robert Mugabe regime," he said.

Mr. Chimanikire, who is the deputy secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change, went on to describe the situation in Zimbabwe as increasingly intolerable.

He blamed the Mugabe government's policies for creating widespread unemployment of up to 85 percent, and for soaring inflation of 140 percent a year. He also said up to eight million people in Zimbabwe will be without access to food by the end of this year. Mr. Mugabe's government blames drought for the food shortages, and last Saturday declared a price freeze on all foodstuffs. After his speech, Mr. Chimanikire told VOA he hopes Tuesday's award will help strengthen the opposition in Zimbabwe.

"Mugabe has been campaigning on the international scene to try and discredit Morgan Tsvangirai. Now, the award of this medal not only reassures MDC supporters but Africans and the world at large that Morgan Tsvangirai is not alone in this struggle, and that his efforts are being recognized internationally," he said.

Mr. Tsvangirai was scheduled to go on trial for treason this month, but the trial has been postponed.

The International Association of Political Consultants, founded in 1968, brings together political consultants, analysts and others interested in the field of electoral politics. Previous recipients of the Association's Democracy Medal include Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma.

Association President Kenneth Feltman says the group's previous awards have occasionally caused discomfort among repressive regimes. "We have seen that the people on the other side take notice, because they let us know there is displeasure with our awarding of the democracy medal," he said. "That's how we notice it most often?some of the awards have created a little bit of consternation, and we're glad for that. That means they've gotten part of the message."

This year's prize, he says, aims to highlight the problems in Zimbabwe.