HARARE: Senior Zimbabwean opposition figure Tendai Biti on Thursday was charged with inciting public violence and declaring unofficial election results as fears grew about a government crackdown following the disputed July 30 election.
The court appearance followed dramatic events in which Biti fled to Zambia, was denied asylum and was handed over to Zimbabwean security forces in defiance of a Zambian court order. Western diplomats and the U.N. refugee agency quickly expressed concern.
"We will keep on fighting," Biti said as he arrived at court in the capital, Harare. The charge of inciting public violence could bring up to a decade in prison. The charge of declaring unofficial election results carries a maximum six-month sentence. He was granted $5,000 bail but must surrender his passport, report to authorities twice a day and not address political rallies.
Biti's plight has raised concerns that the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who narrowly won the first election after the fall of Robert Mugabe, will treat the opposition just as harshly as before despite promises of reforms. The opposition has said it was preparing a legal challenge to the election results, calling them fraudulent.
Shortly after Biti's hearing, Mnangagwa said he had been released "following my intervention," without giving details. In a series of posts on Twitter, the president said the case would continue "due to the serious nature of the allegations." He called on all parties to cease incitement and violence.
A letter from Biti's lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa to Zimbabwean police alleged that they and military police "unlawfully abducted" Biti from Zambia and "maliciously damaged" the tires of a legal practitioner trying to follow their unmarked vehicles back to Harare.
The letter, seen by The Associated Press, said Biti should be immediately returned to Zambian immigration authorities, and "due to the traditional torture that abductees are generally subjected to in Zimbabwe" it called for a medical team to look over Biti before then.
Zambian border guards handed Biti over despite a court order saying he should not be deported until his appeal for asylum was heard, Zambian lawyer Gilbert Phiri told the AP. Zambia's foreign minister said Biti's reasons for seeking asylum "did not have merit."
The U.N. refugee agency said it was "gravely concerned" about the reports of Biti's forced return to Zimbabwe, calling such actions a serious violation of international law.
A joint statement by the heads of missions in Zimbabwe of the European Union, the United States, Canada and Australia urgently called on Zimbabwean authorities to guarantee Biti's safety and respect his rights. It said diplomats were "deeply disturbed" by reports of security forces targeting the opposition.
Diplomats from the U.S. and Britain attended Biti's hearing along with EU election observers.
"This is a worrying development," said David Coltart, a fellow member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and a human rights lawyer who said Biti was arrested in 2008 on a similar charge and "brutally tortured."
Biti, a former finance minister and newly elected member of parliament for the MDC, last week urged opposition supporters to defend their votes in the disputed ballot, saying MDC candidate Nelson Chamisa had won the presidential race.
The day after Biti's remarks, the military opened fire to disperse opposition protesters in the streets of Harare, killing six people. Western election observers, whose endorsement of a credible election is badly needed for the lifting of international sanctions on Zimbabwe, condemned the "excessive" force.
While Mnangagwa has hailed a "flowering" of democracy since Mugabe stepped down in November under military pressure, alarm has been growing about the role of the security forces and who controls them.
The state-run Herald newspaper in an "editorial comment" said Biti "sneaked into Zambia in a bid to evade the law."
Under Mugabe's 37 years in power, Zimbabwe was dogged by charges of rigged and fraudulent elections, along with violence against opposition figures.
Biti, one of the most outspoken critics of the government, was quick to warn that while the ouster of Mugabe was welcome, the military takeover that led to his resignation set a dangerous precedent for its involvement in civilian affairs.
"The genie is out of the bottle," Biti said in June.