Opposition party supporters in Zimbabwe chanted and sang freedom songs outside a courthouse Sunday following a decision to ban them from holding a rally six weeks before elections.
The court in the town of Bindura upheld Friday's police order that the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change party could not hold the rally to officially launch its election campaign because the venue was unsuitable. The CCC had appealed in court against the order.
The decision increased tensions in the southern African nation, which has a history of violent and disputed elections.
The CCC immediately criticized the move as more evidence of a push by President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his ruling ZANU-PF party to silence the opposition using the police and the courts.
Mnangagwa, 80, replaced long-ruling autocrat Robert Mugabe in a coup in 2017. He promised a new era of freedom and prosperity for Zimbabweans, who had seen their country's economy crumble amid some of the highest inflation rates ever seen.
But Mnangagwa has turned out to be as repressive as his predecessor, say critics, and the economy continues to collapse. There has been a crackdown on any kind of criticism.
The yellow-clad CCC supporters who gathered outside Bindura Magistrates Court sang “Dictatorship remains. When will this country be free?”
Police said that the opposition party's chosen venue for Sunday's rally was unsuitable because it was a “bushy” area with poor access via road, raising safety concerns for those attending. The police also said there was a “high risk” of the spread of communicable diseases.
A rally where thousands of ruling party supporters packed tightly together in a stadium to hear Mnangagwa speak was allowed to go ahead on Saturday.
“We are getting into a match with both legs tied,” said CCC lawyer Agency Gumbo. “They would rather keep the opposition at the courts than on the campaign trail.”
There was “an uneven playing ground that shows that the democratic process has been corroded,” Gumbo said.
The CCC initially appealed against the police order at the High Court in the capital, Harare on Saturday. The case was moved to the court in Bindura, where the rally was scheduled to take place. The Bindura court eventually ruled late afternoon on Sunday, hours after the rally was meant to start at 10 a.m.
The CCC says the repression in the buildup to the Aug. 23 elections has included violence and intimidation against its supporters, the arrest of its officials and bans on its meetings. The opposition has also raised concerns over alleged voters' roll irregularities ahead of elections that will decide the presidency but also the makeup of the Parliament and nearly 2,000 local government positions.
Mnangagwa and his administration have denied the allegations of intimidation, with the president recently describing Zimbabwe as “a mature democracy."
CCC leader Nelson Chamisa lost narrowly to Mnangwagwa in the 2018 presidential election and had his claim of vote-rigging rejected by the Constitutional Court.
Mnangagwa and the 45-year-old Chamisa are two of 11 candidates who have registered to stand in next month's presidential election.
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