Tendai Biti’s forced return to Zimbabwe “a serious violation of international refugee law”, says UNHCR

Zimbabwe opposition politician and former finance minister Tendai Biti with former UK. foreign office minister Henry Bellingham in London on September 29, 2010. Photo credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr

By Obert Madondo | @Obiemad | Aug. 10, 2018

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, says opposition figure Tendai Biti’s forced return to Zimbabwe after he’d sought asylum in Zambia was “a serious violation of international refugee law”.

Zimbabwean police took Biti, an MDC Alliance principal and former Zimbabwean finance minister, into custody Thursday after Zambian authorities had rejected his asylum bid and deported him. He faces charges of inciting public violence in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s first election without Robert Mugabe on the ballot, held July 30, 2018.

The UNHCR is “gravely concerned” about Zambia’s denial of asylum Biti.

“Refoulement or forcibly returning refugees and asylum-seekers to their country of origin is a serious violation of international refugee law,” the agency said in statement issued Thursday.

Zimbabwe’s first post-Mugabe elections ended in allegations of vote rigging leveled against the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), a parliamentary majority for the ruling Zanu PF party, a disputed narrow win for President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and bloodshed on the streets of Harare.

On Tuesday, August 1, the military-dominated ZEC announced that Zanu PF, which has ruled Zimbabwe for 38 years, had won 155 parliamentary seats to the MDC Alliance’s 53. As during the Mugabe era, election observers from the African Union and Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) endorsed the elections as “free” and “fair”. By contrast, EU and United States observers were skeptical. They condemned Zanu-PF’s abuse of power and state resources during the election. They also highlighted the ruling party’s intimidation of voters, and ZEC’s bias.

RELATED: ZEC “cooking” the results of Zimbabwe’s first post-Mugabe elections?

Meanwhile, ZEC withheld the results of the presidential contest pitting Mnangagwa, 75, the MDC Alliance’s Nelson Chamisa, and 21 other candidates, raising opposition fears that the commission was trying to manufacture victory for the incumbent.

Opposition supporters took to the streets of Harare. The government unleashed war tanks, helicopters and live ammunition. Within a short time, the military had gunned down gunned down at least six people.

Several foreign figures, including diplomats and journalists, witnessed the violence and commented.

According to Gabriele Steinhauser, the Deputy Africa Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal:

In the early hours of Friday, Aug. 3, nearly four days after polls had closed, ZEC announced that Mnangagwa, 75, had won the presidential election with 50.08% of the vote, narrowly avoiding a run-off. Chamisa, who received 44.3% of the presidential vote, has rejected Mnangagwa’s victory.

After Mnangagwa’s “tarnished victory“, the Zimbabwean state’s terror campaign continued. The military engaged in what appears to be a pre-meditated campaign to permanently silence the opposition.

According to the Guardian (UK):

Soldiers moved through suburbs of Harare, the capital, and satellite cities on Friday night and early on Saturday morning, beating supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), firing weapons outside the homes of its MPs and sealing off the homes of leaders’ families. Activists reported dozens of injuries – including broken legs and arms – but said that many people were too scared to seek medical attention for fear of being identified and detained… In Harare, troops and police sealed off the home of close relatives of former finance minister Tendai Biti.

Biti is one of the dozens of opposition politicians and activists arrested on charges of inciting public violence during the post-election protests.

In the past 72 hours, several United States officials have openly condemned Mnangagwa’s ongoing deadly crackdown on the Zimbabwean opposition. In a damning statement issued Wednesday, Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) condemned the “violent government-sponsored attacks”. Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote:

Reports of the detention of Tendai Biti at the Zambian border are especially unnerving. The U.S. Senate will hold the government of Zimbabwe responsible for ensuring Mr. Biti and other detainees are not harmed in any way. I also call upon the Trump Administration, the U.S. State Department, the governments of Zimbabwe, Zambia and other regional actors to stand against politically motivated arrests and to support and promote the rule of law.

In a statement issued Thursday, the heads of missions in Zimbabwe of the European Union, Canada, Australia, and the United States, said they were “deeply disturbed by continuing reports that opposition supporters are being targeted by members of the Zimbabwean security forces.” The statement urged Harare to “guarantee the physical integrity and safety of Mr. Biti, to ensure that his constitutional and human rights are respected, and that he will be treated in full accordance with the rule of law.”

The government’s crackdown on the opposition proves that President-elect Mnangagwa, his military benefactors, and Zanu PF, will use any means necessary to hold on to power. Zimbabweans probably saw it coming.

Mnangagwa used “to bide his time before suddenly crunching Mr Mugabe’s enemies“. He grabbed power last November through a military coup that toppled Mugabe after 37 years of bloodstained rule. Zimbabwe’s partisan and politicized military leadership has always been against a non-Zanu PF president.

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. He’s the founder and editor of these blogs: The Canadian ProgressiveZimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad

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