Zimbabwe arrests P.M. party pols, rights lawyer

Mar 17, 2013, 10:43 AM EDT
Photo taken on April 6, 2008 shows Zimbabwean lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa (C), talking to the press outside the High Court in Harare.
AFP/Getty Images

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe police arrested the country's most prominent rights lawyer and four senior officials of the prime minister's party on Sunday and held them at the capital's main police station, an independent lawyers group said.

Rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa is being accused of "obstructing or defeating the course of justice," Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said. The charge comes after she went to assist Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's chief legal adviser, Thabani Mpofu, during a police raid at his Harare home early Sunday, the group said.

Police on Sunday also raided and searched a suburban office of Tsvangirai's media and communications department.

Three other members of Tsvangirai's personal staff were also arrested Sunday morning, the lawyers group said. They were identified as Warship Dumba, Felix Manditse and Annah Muzvidziwa, all close aides of Tsvangirai.

Voting in a referendum on a new constitution ended late Saturday. All main party leaders called for a "Yes" vote on constitutional reforms. Another official of the former opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, was arrested before polling began Saturday. No reasons were given for the arrest by four armed police of Sampson Magunise, a party organizer in eastern Zimbabwe.

Police enforced a clampdown on rights and pro-democracy groups in the run-up to the referendum vote.

The lawyers' group said no further information on the new arrests was immediately available. But witnesses said Mtetwa demanded that police produce a search warrant at Mpofu's home and she was forced into a police vehicle in handcuffs.

In recent weeks, police have seized documents, equipment and cheap wind-up radio receivers from the offices of several rights and pro-democracy groups.

The radio receivers, capable of receiving broadcasts not controlled by President Robert Mugabe's state broadcasting monopoly, were declared illegal by police under broadcast regulations. The broadcasts were used for Mugabe's ZANU-PF party propaganda and were intensified around the referendum vote. Rights groups have challenged the legality of the radio ban, arguing that regular short-wave receivers and satellite television are not outlawed as long as they are covered by routine state listeners' licenses.

Police regularly mount searches without complete warrants looking for allegedly subversive materials said to be a threat to national security. They insist private rights and media freedom groups are trying to incite tensions between political parties ahead of crucial national elections later in the year to end a shaky and acrimonious coalition between Tsvangirai and Mugabe. The coalition was formed by regional mediators after the last violent and disputed elections in 2008.

Mtetwa has won an array of awards from international bodies, including the American Bar Association and the European Bar Human Rights Institute, during her legal career of three decades.