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Arrest of human rights lawyer on politically-motivated charges raises fear of broader crackdown, says Human Rights Watch

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is a 7 May 2008 Human Rights Watch press release:

Zimbabwe: Lawyer's Arrest Raises Fear of Broader Crackdown

(Johannesburg, May 7, 2008) - The Zimbabwe government's politically motivated arrest of prominent human rights lawyer Harrison Nkomo raises fears of a broader crackdown on government critics, Human Rights Watch said today.

"The arrest of a leading human rights lawyer may signal the government's escalation of its crackdown on perceived opponents," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It would be unfortunate if Harrison Nkomo became the 'canary in the coal mine.' He should be released immediately."

Nkomo was arrested near his office in central Harare at 2:30 p.m. on May 7, 2008, and is being held at the Law and Order Section of Harare Central Police station. He faces the criminal charges of "insulting or undermining the authority of the head of state" under the Public Order and Security Act of 2002. Nkomo recently defended Barry Bearak, a New York Times correspondent arrested for working without accreditation on April 3, 2008 and held for four days before being deported. Human Rights Watch urged that Nkomo be immediately released and all politically motivated charges dropped.

Nkomo is the first lawyer arrested for apparent opposition activities since the crackdown following the March 29 elections, although others have been harassed. Since the elections, the authorities have arrested more than 100 presiding electoral officers. On April 25, 2008, they arrested more than 200 people who had sought shelter from the government's terror campaign at the headquarters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Harare. They were held for several days before being released without charge.

Since the March 29 elections, Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of increasing violence by the ruling ZANU-PF militia and the military against members or supporters of the MDC ( http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/04/25/zimbab18653.htm ).

On May 2, 2008, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced the results of the presidential election and said that a runoff was necessary between President Robert Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai ( http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/05/02/zimbab18734.htm ).

"The ruling party's continuing brutality against the opposition makes a mockery of the runoff vote," said Gagnon. "The arrest of a leading human rights lawyer takes the intimidation one step further."

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