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Harare - Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said on Monday the arrest of his aides is intimidation by political rivals in the run-up to general elections due later this year.
Tsvangirai is in an uncomfortable coalition government with his arch-rival and veteran leader President Robert Mugabe Ä which should end with elections after voters approved the adoption of a new constitution in a referendum at the weekend.
“What we are seeing are signs of fear,” said Tsvangirai in a statement.
“The targeting of my office is reprehensible and is meant to harass and intimidate the nation ahead of the election, now that we are done with the referendum,” he said.
Four of Tsvangirai's aides were arrested on Sunday in a raid on the prime minister's communications office in Harare, along with a top rights lawyer.
“These are signs of a police force that has become an appendage of a political party, which is now showing signs of panic and fear in light of the imminent prospects of losing the forthcoming election,” said Tsvangirai in reference to Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.
Meanwhile, the arrest of lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who was held in police custody Monday despite a judge ordering her release, has drawn the ire of rights groups across the globe.
Mtetwa, a prominent figure in Zimbabwe who has handled a number of top cases including previous raids on activists, was arrested on Sunday morning as she sought to help Tsvangirai's aides during the raid on their offices.
Police said Mtetwa was detained for shouting at detectives.
A court ordered her release late on Sunday, but police defied the order.
“She is still detained at Rhodesville police station,” lawyer Harrison Nkomo told AFP, adding that the police's decision not to immediately heed that order was “a clear violation”.
A group of Zimbabwean rights lawyers has filed a court application to have the police held in contempt of court.
“The arrest of Mtetwa is in itself alarming,” said the International Committee of Jurists, Pan African Lawyers Union and groups of lawyers from the southern Africa region.
“But coming on the heels of a referendum to endorse a new constitution which, whatever its other limitations, contains strong protection of the rights of those arrested and detained, is more distressing still.”
They called for a “clear and unambiguous departure” from past harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders.
Amnesty International said “the Zimbabwean police must, without further delay, comply with the court order and unconditionally grant Ms Mtetwa her freedom.”
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said Mtetwa had been denied access to her relatives.
The group's director Irene Petras said Mtetwa's detention showed that Zimbabwe's police force had not reformed.
“We are vindicated in setting out what needs to be done. These kinds of things need to be addressed.”
Meanwhile the three Tsvangirai staffers and a party official have not yet been charged and are still in detention.
They were accused of impersonating police officers.
Their lawyer Alec Muchadehama has filed an urgent court application seeking their release, which has yet to be heard.
The arrests have tainted a referendum held on Saturday on a draft charter expected to pave the way for new elections planned for July. - Sapa-AFP