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By Peta Thornycroft
Southern Africa
23 January 2008

Zimbabwe police clamped down hard on protesters, beating them as they made their way to a rally, following the brief detention of the founding president of the country's political opposition. As Peta Thornycroft reports, the demonstration was to be the first test of new security laws intended to ease restrictions on protests in the leadup to elections set for March.

Hundreds of opposition party supporters are dispersed by police as they protest for fair elections in Harare, 23 Jan 2008
Hundreds of opposition party supporters are dispersed by police as they protest for fair elections in Harare, 23 Jan 2008
Movement for Democratic Change Secretary-General Tendai Biti says he applied well within deadline for permission to hold an anti-poverty and pro- democracy 'freedom walk' in accordance with new security laws which came into effect January 11.

But police immediately stopped the demonstration, telling state-controlled radio the protest had "sinister" intentions. A police spokesmen said it was feared the opposition MDC would incite violence in the streets.

The MDC went to court to overturn the ban and was granted permission to hold a rally on the outskirts of Harare.

According to eyewitness reports from central Harare, police fired tear gas and beat up a few people walking peacefully towards the rally on the western edge of the city. A few walkers held placards.

The founding president of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai, was detained before dawn, but police relased him hours later and he addressed the rally.

Zimbabwean police have used heavy-handed tactics to prevent or break up opposition rallies in the past. Last March, security forces severely beat Tsvangirai and other opposition leaders as they tried to hold a mass rally in Harare.

Several amendments to existing media, security and election laws became effective January 11.

These reforms were the result of negotiations that began last April between the two main political parties, the MDC and the ruling Zanu-PF, mediated by South African president Thabo Mbeki.

The talks broke down in December. The opposition has demanded a new constitution, agreed to in the talks, be in place before the election and said polling should be delayed to allow people time to understand the new laws.

President Robert Mugabe has insisted elections take place as scheduled and has said he will not allow the new constitution to be implemented before the polls.

President Mbeki went to Harare last week to try to persuade President Robert Mugabe to stick to agreements made during the negotiations, President Mugabe refused.

Zimbabwe is mired in an economic crisis, with an annual inflation rate of several thousand percent as well as shortages of food, fuel, and foreign currency.

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