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Police arrest hundreds in protests against economic hardships
June 11, 2007

Zimbabwean police arrested more than 150 people on Monday in rural Matabeleland South during a protest march against the ongoing economic hardships.

About 500 demonstrators carrying placards and chanting anti-government slogans at Filabusi, about 100km southeast of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, were confronted by heavily armed police officers. Kossam Ncube, the lawyer acting on behalf of those detained, told IRIN the marchers had been arrested and assaulted.

The protest march, organised by the women's movement, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), said its members were demanding "social justice, and that government rein in corruption and act on the crumbling economy, which has reduced millions of our people to virtual beggars".

"Some of those arrested have little children with them and they [the children] are currently [also] in custody. The crowd that had gathered comprised our members in this rural area [Filabusi] and ordinary villagers who are disenchanted with the [President Robert] Mugabe regime," WOZA spokesperson Jennifer Williams told IRIN.

"They are demanding affordable foodstuffs - a lot of people are hungry and this is a paramount issue that government should address. Also, we wanted to launch a People's Charter in this area which outlines the change that people across the country are yearning for ... Basically, this is the paperwork about people's demands that we have compiled over the last eleven months."

Ncube said some of the activists had been beaten while being arrested and he would contest both their arrest and assault in court, as it was every citizen's right to demonstrate peacefully.

"I am currently seeking clarification with the police about this, but indications are that they [the detainees] are being charged for demonstrating without police clearance," Ncube said.

Demonstrators told IRIN the protest had been against the government's failure to deal with the more than 3,700 pecent annual inflation rate, the highest in the world.

Nomalanga Sibanda, a protester who evaded arrest, said, "We are starving here. Food is expensive in shops, and maize that is cheap, which is meant to be sold to everyone by the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) [the state-controlled sole distributor], is being sold only to ruling party supporters. Those suspected of being dissidents, like myself, are left out. It's just not fair."

Police arrested the protesters for contravening the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which prohibits all demonstrations not sanctioned by the police, although analysts said the tough security legislation was being used to crack down on any dissent directed against Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF government.

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena confirmed the arrests and said police would not tolerate any activities threatening national security.

Lawyers representing those arrested told IRIN that 100 activists were arrested in similar demonstrations held in Bulawayo by WOZA last week, some of whom had allegedly been tortured while in custody.

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