HARARE – Senior Zimbabwean opposition politician Tendai Biti has been taken into police custody after being deported from Zambia on Thursday morning, his lawyer said, in the latest escalation in a violent crackdown following last week’s election.
Biti, who was finance minister during a government of national unity from 2009 to 2013, is the most prominent opposition leader to be detained since President Emmerson Mnangagwa was declared the winner of the July 30 vote.
Biti, a fast-talking and combative lawyer, was one of several opposition leaders who said that their candidate, Nelson Chamisa, had won the presidential poll and accused the electoral commission of rigging the vote.
His detention follows a multiday manhunt during which Biti went into hiding in Zimbabwe before fleeing to neighboring Zambia, where his request for political asylum was rejected. Zimbabwean authorities allege that Biti instigated an Aug. 1 protest by opposition supporters, which was violently broken up by soldiers toting automatic weapons and bayonets, leaving six civilians dead.
“He has been taken in by the Zimbabwean authorities,” said Rose Hanzi of Zimbabwean Lawyers for Human Rights, who represents Biti.
Hanzi said a lawyer sent to meet Biti and several other activists traveling with him at the border wasn’t allowed access to her client.
“I don’t know if we should call it an abduction or an arrest,” she said, adding that she was still trying to confirm Biti’s whereabouts.
A spokeswoman for Zimbabwe’s police declined to confirm whether Biti had been arrested, saying she was in a meeting, before hanging up the phone.
Human Rights Watch said Biti was deported Thursday morning, despite a Zambian court order that would have allowed him to appeal the rejection of his asylum request.
“There is a huge concern about persecution and risk to his life,” said Dewa Mavhinga, HRW’s director for Southern Africa.
Western governments have condemned the crackdown by security forces following the elections, including allegations of soldiers and police beating, abducting and torturing opposition supporters.
Overnight, Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary of state for Africa at the US State Department, urged Zambian authorities in a series of tweets to allow Biti to stay until his request for asylum had been evaluated properly, or guarantee him safe passage to another country.
“We understand that Mr Biti has legitimate concerns about his own safety,” Nagy said. “We are deeply troubled by credible reports that opposition supporters are being targeted by members of the Zimbabwean security forces.”
The United Nations’ refugee agency said it was concerned by Zambia’s forced return of an asylum seeker to his country of origin and called on the government to investigate the incident.
“Forcibly returning refugees and asylum seekers to their country of origin is a serious violation of international refugee law,” the agency said in a statement.