HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwean police fired tear gas and beat up more than a 100 opposition supporters with batons on Friday after they defied a protest ban in central Harare, witnesses said.
The group, singing and chanting, quickly re-emerged at a main square, where protesters were set to assemble and were again cleared by baton-wielding police.
Friday’s demonstration was to have been the first in a series planned by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which accuses the government of corruption and economic mismanagement.
The protests are widely viewed as a test of how President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has so far this year failed to make good on promises of political and economic reform, responds to dissent in a country tainted by a long history of repression.
Police late on Thursday banned the Harare event and said anyone taking part would be committing a crime, and a High Court judge early on Friday dismissed an application by the party to overturn that ban.
The ban, which the MDC would not appeal, had exposed the government’s “true colours,” party Vice President Tendai Biti told reporters outside the court.
“The constitution guarantees the right to demonstration … yet this fascist regime has denied and proscribed this right to the people of Zimbabwe,” he said.
“…We have jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the coup of November 2017… We don’t accept the conduct of this regime, the conduct of Mr Mnangagwa.”
Elected after the armed forces intervened to oust Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa has said he aims to break with the long legacy of repression that characterised much of his predecessor’s 37 years in power.
But the economy is mired in its worst crisis in a decade, and Mnangagwa is struggling to convince the growing ranks of poor citizens that his government’s austerity measures and reforms can trigger a recovery.
Zimbabweans had also expected last year’s vote to usher in a new dawn of expanded political rights and an end to the country’s international pariah status, but instead, the elections left the country more polarised.
APPARATUS OF THE STATE
In January, a violent security crackdown in Harare against fuel demonstrations left more than a dozen people dead.
Days ahead of the planned Harare demonstration, six political activists were abducted from their homes at night and beaten by armed men, a coalition of rights groups said.
On Friday, the apparatus of state was out in force again and the city’s streets were unusually quiet.
Reuters witnesses saw police and armed soldiers searching buses, taxis and private vehicles at checkpoints and randomly asking for identity documents.
More than a hundred opposition supporters chanted party slogans and sang near a square in central Harare where protesters had been set to assemble, but were chased away by baton-wielding police.
One woman was taken to hospital by ambulance after sustaining a deep gush on her heard.
Police also blocked roads to the MDC headquarters.
Most businesses, including banks, were closed as workers stayed at home. A major supermarket chain nearby that had opened, quickly closed its doors fearing tensions would escalate.
Anger is mounting as Zimbabweans grapple with soaring inflation, rolling power cuts and shortages of U.S. dollars, fuel and bread.
In a letter to church leaders published on Friday in the state-owned Herald newspaper, Mnangagwa said the economic hardship had its roots in sanctions imposed by the West more than a decade ago as well as a severe drought this year.
He also said MDC leader Nelson Chamisa had rejected his invitation to dialogue meant to resolve Zimbabwe’s political and economic problems. Chamisa has said he will only sit down with Mnangagwa if there is a neutral arbiter.
“The doors of national dialogue are still open to all political leaders including to the leader of the MDC,” Mnangagwa said.
While political leaders argue, wages and pensions continue to be eroded by triple-digit inflation, bringing back bad memories of the hyperinflation of a decade ago, which forced the country to ditch its currency.