Western governments and the UN expressed alarm on Thursday as top Zimbabwe opposition figure Tendai Biti appeared in court after a dramatic attempt to flee to neighbouring Zambia and claim asylum.
Biti, a veteran figure in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was taken handcuffed into a court room in Harare under a heavy police presence to face charges of public violence as well as the illegal declaration of election results.
“We will keep on fighting,” he said, before being granted bail of $5,000 (R68,350) and having to surrender his passport.
Biti made a dash across the border on Wednesday, facing allegations of inciting protests last week by proclaiming victory for the opposition in Zimbabwe’s first elections since the downfall of Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe’s successor at the head of ruling party Zanu-PF, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was later declared the winner according to the official results, but the MDC has charged that the election was rigged.
Zambian authorities rejected Biti’s plea for political asylum and handed him back to Zimbabwean police on Thursday morning, in defiance of a court ruling, his lawyers said.
The UN refugee agency said it was “gravely concerned” by reports that Biti, an internationally respected finance minister in Zimbabwe’s 2009-2013 power-sharing government, had been deported while trying to claim asylum.
“Forcibly returning refugees and asylum-seekers to their country of origin is a serious violation of international refugee law,” the UNHCR said.
It urged Zambia to investigate the incident, after accusations that Zimbabwe’s authorities are pursuing a crackdown on the opposition as it pursues claims of electoral fraud.
Zambian government spokesperson Dora Siliya said authorities had received the ruling blocking Biti’s expulsion after he had been returned.
“His asylum was denied on the basis that in his country there is no breakdown in the rule of law,” she said, adding that Biti himself was “running away from the due process of the law” as he was wanted by authorities.
Western nations said they were “deeply disturbed by continuing reports that opposition supporters are being targeted by members of the Zimbabwean security forces”.
In a joint statement, the EU, US, Canadian and Australian missions to Zimbabwe urged authorities to “guarantee the physical integrity and safety of Mr Biti, to ensure that his constitutional and human rights are respected, and that he will be treated in full accordance with the rule of law”.
At a packed court hearing, prosecutors accused Biti of egging on protesters on August 1, urging them to pull down a Mnangagwa campaign poster while telling them: “Remove that poster, we don’t want thieves in this country.”
The protesters went on to burn the poster while damaging property at the Harare offices of Zanu-PF.
The army opened fire on protesters, killing six people and prompting an outcry.
Mnangagwa had vowed the elections would turn a page on Mugabe’s repressive rule.
But the aftermath of the polls has been marred by allegations of a crackdown on opposition members, including beatings and arrests.
MDC leader Nelson Chamisa said on Thursday he would launch a legal challenge against the results by the end of the day, but the party had not done so by the time the Constitutional Court closed. Friday is the deadline.