Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Arrests provoke two-day national strike in Zimbabwe

AP , HARARE

Union officials on Wednesday called for a two-day national strike to demand the release of labor and civic leaders among nearly 90 people arrested in street protests against President Robert Mugabe's autocratic rule.

Police broke up demonstrations across the country on Tuesday, arresting scores of protesters, including 14 top officials of Zimbabwe's main labor federation and several prominent political activists.

Collen Gwiyo, acting for the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions' detained secretary-general, urged workers to go on strike yesterday and today to demand their release.

Protesters were arrested for participating in banned demonstrations under the nation's stringent security laws -- an offense punishable by up to six months in jail.

But lawyers for the 52 people detained in Harare said there was insufficient grounds to charge most of them.

Three officials from the labor federation, including federation chief Lovemore Matombo and secretary-general Wellington Chibhebhe, were charged with disobeying a police ban, said attorney Alec Muchedhama.

The rest were charged with minor traffic violations for obstructing roads in downtown Harare.

All of them remained in custody because they refused to plead guilty and pay fines, Muchedhama said.

Gwiyo said he was confident workers would not be put off by the detention of most of the federation's key organizers.

"It is easier to mobilize when the workers are angry," he said.

Tuesday's demonstrations were called to protest state harassment of labor groups.

Protesters were also demanding tax reductions and measures to halt spiraling inflation in next year's budget, scheduled to be delivered in parliament yesterday.

Zimbabwe is in the throes of economic and political crisis with official inflation running at 526 percent, one of the highest levels in the world.

Opponents blame Mugabe's authoritarian rule, which has included the frequently violent seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to impoverished blacks.

Many of the best farms have gone to ruling party leaders, while acute shortages of seed and fertilizer have left most others idle.

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