MPs forge ahead with draconian laws

Zimbabwean MPs spent hours on Tuesday discussing a labour bill which will limit the right to strike, but did not discuss a controversial media bill aimed at drastically curbing press freedom.

Independent Journalists Association president Abel Mutsakani told IRIN the bill - which will censor the independent press, ban foreign journalists from working in the country and compel local journalists to register with the government or face jail - was expected to be discussed in parliament on Wednesday.

The new laws go before parliament after President Robert Mugabe promised leaders at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Malawi on Monday that he and his ruling ZANU-PF party would ensure free and fair presidential elections on 9 and 10 March, as well as allow foreign election observers.

In turn, SADC and Malawian president Bakili Muluzi said after the summit in Blantyre that the regional body accepted Mugabe's pledges. However, Mugabe's critics back home refuse to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"SADC is fast becoming irrelevant to most Zimbabweans ... He (Mugabe) has done and said these things before," Mutsakani said. "Given the fact that it is clear that the so-called quiet diplomacy by South African President Thabo Mbeki or by SADC will not move Mugabe in any way, we expected SADC to take specific and effective action to force Mugabe to abandon his undemocratic policies," he added.

Kwezi Mngqibisa, head of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) peacekeeping programme, told IRIN that events at the Monday summit indicated the regional bloc wanted to show Mugabe their support - in the hope that it would extract certain concessions from him.

"SADC has resisted moves to support sanctions and isolate Zimbabwe. So in turn, they will expect some concessions, like allowing some measure of election observers," he said.

According to Mngqibisa, SADC's lack of unity on how to deal with Mugabe stemmed from fear that "the situation in Zimbabwe could play itself out in their own countries". "They are concerned about the precedent any action they may take will set," he said, and for any SADC action to work, it would need the support of all members.

Nonetheless, he said, from a conflict resolution perspective, the SADC summit may yet yield results. "Some of the most critical moves in resolving any conflict are not necessarily in public statements. They (SADC) leaders will not do that (make strong public statements) if they do not think it will have the desired effect."

However, as SADC waits to see if Mugabe keeps his promises this time around, Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has urged South Africa to cut electricity and fuel supplies to the country to force Mugabe's hand.

The Zimbabwe News Agency quoted MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai as telling BBC on Tuesday that SADC leaders who met in Malawi were "hypocritical". He said South Africa had the capacity to send the "right" signals to Mugabe, the report said.

"The threat to undermine the elections by the military, by President Robert Mugabe himself, should actually send shock waves to South Africa and they should say under those circumstances, we are going to cut fuel, we are going to cut transport links," Tsvangirai was quoted as saying. South Africa, however, has so far rejected all calls for sanctions against Harare.

In other developments, AP reported that a top United States State Department official arrived in Zimbabwe on Tuesday to help ensure free elections in March. News reports also said that Britain had frozen the deportation of Zimbabwean refugees and was - along with the United States - starting to hunt down the foreign bank accounts of Mugabe and other ZANU-PF lawmakers with a view to freezing their monies.

At the same time, political violence has continued unabated in Zimbabwe. AP reported on Tuesday that in the latest case David Mpala, an opposition lawmaker, was critically wounded after 20 ruling party militants attacked him and slit his abdomen. Police said they were investigating the incident. Police also said MDC activists were arrested for attacking a group of ruling party youths with logs and axes in Nkayi, 260 km southwest of Harare, the report said.