HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s High Court on Monday ordered police to allow lawyers access to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was said to be “in bad shape” after suffering head injuries while in police custody.
Police detained Tsvangirai and dozens of other opposition figures on Sunday and killed a man while breaking up a prayer meeting organised in defiance of a ban on political rallies, and rights groups alleged he and other politicians were tortured.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the detention, echoing international condemnation against the Zimbabwean government over rights abuses.
A Tsvangirai lawyer said the High Court ordered police late on Monday to give them access to the head of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the other detainees.
“A provisional order was issued that we have access to our clients, that they should be taken to hospital where necessary and that they should be taken to court by 12 (p.m. local time) tomorrow (Tuesday) failure of which they should be released,” Alec Muchadehama told Reuters.
Under Zimbabwe’s laws, police can detain suspects for up to 48 hours before bringing them to court.
Earlier, a Tsvangirai lawyer, Innocent Chagonda, visited the MDC leader and said he was in bad shape. “He was swollen very badly. He was bandaged on the head. You couldn’t distinguish between the head and the face and he could not see properly.”
MDC Vice President Thokozani Khupe said the party wanted all detainees freed immediately and pledged that the struggle against President Robert Mugabe would continue.
“President Tsvangirai is battling for his life at Borrowdale police station after he was brutally assaulted. He lost consciousness three times following the ... attack,” she said.
Political tensions, which have been brewing over the soaring cost of living and Mugabe’s controversial rule, erupted when riot squads fought opposition youths in the capital for the second time in a month on Sunday, where one person was killed.
A coalition of opposition, church and civic groups called Sunday’s meeting to address Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis. Police ordered organisers to scrap it due to fears the opposition was launching a street campaign to oust Mugabe.
Political pressure group National Constitutional Assembly said its chairman, Lovemore Madhuku, suffered a broken arm and a bad head wound in police custody.
“In addition to the killing, they (those detained) were tortured in custody,” rally organisers said.
Asked for a comment, police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said: “I wouldn’t know about that because these people were arrested in different places.”
Bvudzijena accused Tsvangirai and others of inciting violence. He said a police patrol killed one man after being attacked by a mob of “MDC thugs” on Sunday. Three police officers were badly injured when MDC supporters attacked a patrol using children as human shields, he said.
Police, armed with shotguns, rubber batons and teargas canisters patrolled Harare’s Highfield township on Monday.
“There is lots of anger but also lots of fear after what happened yesterday,” said a security guard.
U.N. chief Ban said the crackdown violated citizens rights to peaceful assembly, his spokeswoman Michele Montas said.
“The Secretary-General urges the Government of Zimbabwe to release the detainees and to guarantee their safety. He calls on the authorities to allow peaceful assembly and to provide a space for the exercise of legitimate political rights.”
The United States called the clampdown “absolutely uncalled for”. Foreign Office Minister for Africa Lord Triesman, speaking for Zimbabwe’s former colonial power Britain, said: “The UK holds Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe government responsible for the safety of all those detained.”
Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, may seek a new term if asked by the ruling party, whether elections are held as planned in 2008 or delayed for two years, state media reported.
“What happened yesterday is a clear indication that we are heading towards social and political unrest, that the opposition is getting bolder in confronting the Mugabe regime,” said John Makumbe, a leading political commentator and Mugabe critic.
Mugabe, 83, dismisses the MDC as a puppet of Britain which opposes him for seizing white-owned farms to give to blacks.
Zimbabwe’s inflation exceeds 1,700 percent, the highest in the world, with unemployment more than 80 percent. The country is battling chronic food and fuel shortages.