HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe police arrested the country’s most prominent rights lawyer and four senior officials with the prime minister’s party on Sunday, a day after the nation voted in a referendum on a new constitution that calls for more protection against human rights violations.
Rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa is being charged with allegedly “obstructing or defeating the course of justice” and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s chief legal adviser, Thabani Mpofu, is accused of impersonating police by compiling dossiers on unspecified crimes, a police official said.
Mtetwa was called to an address in Harare where police were searching an office used by Mpofu and began “shouting at officers and preventing them from doing their duties,” police official Charity Charamba said Sunday. She said all of those arrested were being held for questioning Sunday.
Police had been instructed to search the offices of a private group, the Democratic Alliance of Zimbabwe, where it was believed some information on alleged crimes was being illegally held, she said. Police removed unspecified “exhibits” for evidence against the group that they were engaged in police-type investigations, she said. Witnesses said computer equipment and mobile phones were seized.
Democracy and rights groups routinely gather witness accounts of alleged crimes and abuses of power in state institutions, including the police force, controlled by President Robert Mugabe.
Obstructing justice and impersonating police officers carry a penalty of imprisonment or a fine.
Witnesses said Sunday that Mtetwa demanded that police produce a search warrant at the suburban house used by Mpofu. Officers accused her of trying to take photographs of a security detail on her mobile phone and she was forced into a police vehicle, the witnesses said.
Mtetwa has won an array of awards from international bodies, including the American Bar Association and the European Bar Human Rights Institute, during her legal career of three decades. She has represented Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his supporters in high profile cases where she has accused police of the wrongful arrest and detention of Mugabe’s perceived opponents without sufficient evidence.
Mpofu is a senior attorney who is the head of the research and development department in the prime minister’s office. Police on Sunday also raided and searched Harare offices of Tsvangirai’s media and communications unit.
Three other members of Tsvangirai’s personal staff were arrested Sunday morning, the independent Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said. They were identified as Warship Dumba, Felix Manditse and Annah Muzvidziwa, all close aides of Tsvangirai.
Voting in a referendum on a new constitution ended late Saturday. All main party leaders called for a “Yes” vote on constitutional reforms. Another official of the former opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, was arrested before polling began Saturday. No reasons were immediately given for the arrest by four armed police of Sampson Magunise, a party organizer in eastern Zimbabwe, but Charamba said Sunday he was a suspect in an alleged gasoline bomb attack on a the car of a Mugabe party official.
Zimbabwe’s official election body said Sunday an estimated 2 million people cast their vote in a referendum on a new constitution that seeks to curb presidential powers and strengthen human rights.
Judge Rita Makarau, head of the electoral commission, said the low estimate came from early returns from the nation’s 9,400 polling stations.
Zimbabwe has an estimated 6.6 million registered voters. Full results from isolated areas are expected within five days.
Police enforced a clampdown on rights and pro-democracy groups in the run-up to the referendum vote.
In recent weeks, police have seized documents, equipment and cheap wind-up radio receivers from the offices of several rights and pro-democracy groups.
The radio receivers, capable of receiving broadcasts not controlled by President Mugabe’s state broadcasting monopoly, were declared illegal by police under broadcast regulations. The broadcasts were used for Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party propaganda and were intensified around the referendum vote. Rights groups have challenged the legality of the radio ban, arguing that regular short-wave receivers and satellite television are not outlawed as long as they are covered by routine state listeners’ licenses.
Police regularly mount searches without complete warrants looking for allegedly subversive materials said to be a threat to national security. They insist private rights and media freedom groups are trying to incite tensions between political parties ahead of crucial national elections later in the year to end a shaky and acrimonious coalition between Tsvangirai and Mugabe. The coalition was formed by regional mediators after the last violent and disputed elections in 2008.