, Harare, Zimbabwe, Jul 28 – Police have arrested a senior official from Zimbabwe’s war veterans’ association after it accused President Robert Mugabe of “dictatorial” behaviour in a shock rupture with the 92-year-old leader, lawyers said Thursday.
Veterans of Zimbabwe’s 1970s independence war, who had previously been loyal Mugabe supporters, last week issued a statement bitterly denouncing the president, who faces growing signs of opposition.
Douglas Mahiya, spokesman for the War Veterans’ Association, was arrested late Wednesday in Harare, according to the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) group.
“Information presently at hand is that the police are charging him with subverting a constitutional government and insulting the office of the president,” the lawyers said.
A Mahiya family lawyer confirmed the arrest to AFP, but declined to comment further.
The association’s secretary-general, Victor Matemadanda, was also taken from his rural home in Gokwe, north west Zimbabwe, after being summoned for police questioning.
“His whereabouts are currently undetermined, as are the charges or allegations against him,” ZLHR said.
Recent demonstrations, the largest in many years in Zimbabwe, have been triggered by an economic crisis that has left banks short of cash and the government struggling to pay its workers.
More than 90 percent of the population is not in formal employment after years of economic decline under Mugabe’s rule.
Police on Thursday declined to comment on the two cases, a day after the president vowed to punish the unnamed authors of the war veterans’ criticisms.
– ‘Deal with our enemies’ –
“When we find out who the people were, the party will discipline them. The punishment will be severe,” Mugabe said in a speech Wednesday to supporters outside the headquarters of the ruling ZANU-PF party.
In a dramatic change of stance, the liberation war fighters last week vowed not to support Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, if he sought re-election in 2018.
“You can’t maintain a dictatorship by arresting people for speaking their mind,” Rugare Gumbo, a war veteran and former senior government official, told AFP.
“It’s unfortunate that war veterans are being victimised.”
Starting in 2002, the veterans led the government-backed seizures of white-owned commercial farms, in what Mugabe said was a reversal of imbalances from the colonial era.
Many veterans have also been accused of the widespread intimidation and violence during past elections that have kept Mugabe in office.
The president on Wednesday also issued a direct threat to pastor Evan Mawarire, who has emerged as leader of the popular “ThisFlag” protest movement against the authoritarian government.
“We know how to deal with our enemies who have been trying to bring about regime change,” Mugabe said, referring by name to Mawarire, who is currently in neighbouring South Africa.
Earlier this month, many offices, shops and some government departments were closed for a one-day strike over the economic crisis that has been worsened by a severe drought.
Mawarire, one of the organisers of the strike, was greeted by hundreds of cheering supporters two weeks ago when he was released by a court that dismissed a case against him of attempting to overthrow the government.
Other protests have erupted at the border with South Africa after many basic imports were outlawed, and in Harare over police officers allegedly using road blocks to extort cash from motorists.