After a day of high drama and confrontation between Zimbabwean and Zambian authorities at the Chirundu border between the two countries on Wednesday, prominent Zimbabwean opposition leader Tendai Biti and five of his colleagues were locked in a police cell on the Zambian side of the border, fearing deportation back to Zimbabwe.
“I can’t go back to Zimbabwe. They will kill me”, Biti told Daily Maverick in a phone interview from his cell after 10pm on Wednesday. He said he had no idea if the Zambian government intended to deport them, as several reports indicated they intended doing.
Zambia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Malanji reportedly told the BBC that Biti was in Zambia, but his ‘’grounds do not merit asylum’’. He said the opposition leader has been kept in safe custody and is ‘’out of danger’’ but emphasised that he ‘’has to go back to his country to answer charges levelled against him’’.
Malanji reportedly told the BBC that Biti’s grounds for asylum “are not meritorious”. Asked if he was ok, Biti said:
“No, I am not ok. I will only be ok if we are granted asylum or a free passage as we are entitled to under international law.“
He added that they had only avoided being handed over to Zimbabwean authorities so far because a group of ordinary Zimbabwean citizens crossing the border had protested strongly against Zimbabwean officials trying to arrest them.
He was particularly grateful to the women in that crowd:
”It was the women especially who prevented them handing me over,” he said.
Biti fled across the Zambezi River at the Chirundu border post at about 6:00am on Wednesday after hearing that the Zimbabwean authorities were planning to arrest him, apparently for prematurely announcing that his party the MDC and its presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa had won the July 30 elections. He also reportedly faced charges of organising protests after the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced that Zanu-PF had won the elections.
Biti and his five colleagues managed to cross the bridge at Chirundu to reach the one-stop border post on the Zambian side, also called Chirundu. But when they presented their passports to Zambian immigration officials, these same officials informed Zimbabwean immigration officials since they knew he was a wanted person in Zimbabwe.
When Zimbabwean police tried to arrest Biti he “strongly resisted arrest arguing that he was protected by international law since he had already crossed the Zambezi river and was in the process of applying for asylum,” according to an official Zimbabwean police report.
Biti shouted “on top of his voice saying he was being abducted and called for assistance from Zimbabwean travellers going to Zambia numbering approximately 300 people.”
The report said these members of the public prevented Zimbabwean security agents from arresting Biti and his colleagues. Attracted by the commotion, Zambian immigration authorities then took Biti to their offices to interview them:
“They ordered the Zimbabwe security agents not to enter their office,” the official report said. Detective Inspector Mwaba, Officer-In-Charge of Zambian CID at Chirundu then threatened to arrest the Zimbabwean officials for to trying to arrest Biti and his colleagues on Zambian soil.
The Zambian authorities refused to hand over Biti and his colleagues , saying that they wanted to consult with the superiors in Lusaka, “since the accused persons had indicated that they were running away from political persecution.” They also refused to discuss the issue with the Zimbabwean authorities. Zambian paramilitary troops armed with AK47 Rifles later arrived at the border and took charge of Biti and his colleagues and their vehicle, the report said.
Biti said from his prison cell that after the way Zimbabwean police had been behaving since the elections, including shooting dead 6 civilians during protests in Harare, he was convinced he would be killed if he was returned to Zimbabwe. After all the talk of Mnangagwa about a New Dawn and being open for business, the rule of law was collapsing in Zimbabwe and fascism was again ruling the country, he said.
David Coltart, ex-Senator and Cabinet minister and legal adviser to the MDC said that Biti had applied for asylum which the Zambian government had turned down. In terms of international law he has the right to appeal and also the right of passage, both of which the Zambians appear intent on turning down. It is outrageous. “
Coltart said Zambian lawyer Gilbert Phiri had prepared an urgent application to the High Court in Lusaka for an interdict to stay any decision to return Biti to Zimbabwe.
“It was only going to be a matter of time before Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe reverted back to default settings- violence, impunity and torture,” he added.
British politician Lord Peter Hain, tweeted on Wednesday night that the “treatment of Tendai Biti is terrible and oppressive: with army killings last week and police dispersal of journalists at MDC press conference Emmerson Mnangagwa is not fulfillinig his promise of a new Zimbabwe era.”
US and European Union diplomats in both Zimbabwe and Zambia were intervening late on Wednesday to try to prevent Biti and his colleagues from being deported.
Late on Wednesday President Ramaphosa’s office announced that he would travel to Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday and Friday to meet Zambian President Edgar Lungu and DRC President Joseph Kabila. Ramaphosa would “discuss bilateral cooperation as well as political and security developments in the region and continent.”
Officials did not respond immediately when asked if Ramaphosa would urge Lungu not to deport Biti. The statement said on Sunday Ramaphosa would attend the inauguration in Harare of Emmerson Mnangagwa as president following the July 30 election. DM
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