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Zimbabwe court overturns police ban on rallies

Zimbabwe's opposition will hold rallies in the capital Sunday thanks to a favorable court ruling, an official said Saturday, with only weeks to go before its leader faces Robert Mugabe in a presidential runoff.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Zimbabwe's opposition will hold rallies in the capital Sunday thanks to a favorable court ruling, an official said Saturday, with only weeks to go before its leader faces Robert Mugabe in a presidential runoff.

The court ruling Saturday means a police ban cannot be enforced, said Nqobizitha Mlilo, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change. The embattled opposition, however, suffered setbacks elsewhere, including the arrest of a prominent member.

Opposition presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, meanwhile, spoke to small groups of voters around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second main city.

Also Saturday, a government minister was quoted as accusing aid groups of campaigning for the opposition and using money donated by the U.S., among Mugabe's harshest critics, to destabilize the government.

Tsvangirai beat Mugabe and two other candidates in the first round of presidential voting March 29, but did not garner the 50 percent plus one vote necessary to avoid a runoff.

'Strengthen the resolve'
Reporters traveling with Tsvangirai on Saturday said small crowds greeted him enthusiastically. At one stop, where it appeared he had planned a rally, riot police were on hand and told him no gatherings were allowed.

Tsvangirai's spokesman, George Sibotshiwe, had said Friday that Tsvangirai was told that all party rallies in the country had been banned indefinitely.

"We have to find a way of getting word to voters under these conditions," Mlilo said Saturday. But he expressed confidence, saying Mugabe's crackdown, which local and international rights groups say has included violence, "will only strengthen the resolve of Zimbabweans to finish this regime off."

Mlilo said it was unlikely Tsvangirai would address Sunday's rallies in Harare.

Police took opposition lawmaker Eric Matinenga from his Harare home Saturday and detained him at a station outside the capital, accusing him of fomenting violence, his lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, said.

Matinenga was detained on similar charges earlier in the week, but released because of a lack of evidence. Scores of opposition activists have been arrested in recent weeks.

Matinenga, himself an attorney, has represented opposition leaders in a string of high profile court cases.

Blaming state agents
A police spokesman had said Friday that even Tsvangirai could be arrested. Tsvangirai left the country soon after the March voting, and his party has said he was the target of a military assassination plot. He has survived at least three previous assassination attempts. Tsvangirai had only returned to Zimbabwe in late May to campaign for the runoff.

Tsvangirai's party, blaming state agents, says at least 60 of its supporters have been slain in the past two months.

Mugabe's critics also accuse him of using food as a political weapon, though he charges it is his Western enemies who have done so.

Earlier in the week, the government ordered all independent aid groups to suspend field work indefinitely, a move the U.N. says puts at least 2 million people at greater risk of starvation, homelessness and disease in a country in economic collapse.

Without the private agencies, impoverished Zimbabweans will be dependent on the government and Mugabe's party, both of which distribute food and other aid.

Aid groups have denied charges they have taken sides in the political contest.

Bright Matonga, Mugabe's deputy information minister, was quoted Saturday in The Herald, a government mouthpiece, as saying the aid groups would have to apply for new operating permits.

"For a long time now, some of these (groups) have been operating like political parties rather than civil society. They have been going around the country distributing food, claiming to be helping the needy but then they tell the communities they visit that they will not get any more food aid if they vote for ... President Mugabe," Matonga was quoted as saying.

Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 and was once hailed as a liberator who promoted racial reconciliation and economic empowerment.

But he has been accused of clinging to power through election fraud and intimidation, and of destroying his country's economy through the seizure of white-owned farms beginning in 2000.

Discontent over the economy propelled Tsvangirai to win in the first round of voting.