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Opposition, Western leaders ask African Union to take action on Zimbabwe election

President Mugabe is sworn in during his inauguration Sunday in Harare.
REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
President Mugabe is sworn in during his inauguration Sunday in Harare.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe officially closed his country's violence-wracked election process on Sunday with an inauguration ceremony much of the world denounced as illegitimate.

But is it truly over? Has Mugabe effectively deployed violence and coercion to pull off his election to a sixth term even though the process was widely seen as a sham?

Answers may come this week in Egypt, where Mugabe is attending an African Union summit. His challengers and Western leaders are asking the Union to reject the election results.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota and around the world, outrage and worry sounded from government offices to church pews over the weekend.

"The international community has condemned the Mugabe regime's ruthless campaign of politically motivated violence and intimidation with a strong and unified voice," President Bush said Saturday.

New sanctions to be developed
Bush said he has instructed the secretaries of State and Treasury to develop sanctions "against this illegitimate government of Zimbabwe and those who support it." Further, he pledged to "press for strong action by the United Nations, including an arms embargo on Zimbabwe and travel ban on regime officials."

In their own way, church groups and other organizations worried about the aftermath of an election that was scarred by violence and intimidation. 

Minnesota's United Methodists were among many groups whose leaders called over the weekend for them to pray for the people of Zimbabwe and take action where they could to help the country that is an economic wreck as well as a boiling political cauldron.

Among other worries, Bishop Sally Dyck said in the call posted on the United Methodist website, "Many fear for the safety of those at Africa University, a United Methodist school in Zimbabwe."

At the Minneapolis offices of the Advocates for Human Rights, the worry was for lawyers who have risked their lives defending rights in Zimbabwe. In response to urgent appeals from Africa, Advocates Executive Director Robin Phillips sent a letter Thursday to Zimbabwean officials, requesting "the immediate cessation of violence directed at human rights defenders and lawyers carrying out their professional duties." Phillips named five lawyers and magistrates who had been assaulted, arrested, abducted or threatened.

But Mugabe has given every indication that he is impervious to prayers, condemnations and letters.

Regime's pre-election savagery
It surprised no one that Mugabe, 84, won on Friday. His regime had driven the opposition into hiding with savagery that was captured in news photos: battered and bloody faces, a toddler whose legs were shattered to punish his parents for campaigning against the president,  and throngs of opposition supporters begging for safe haven at foreign embassies.

In a bid to stop the violence, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had dropped out of the race and taken refuge in the Dutch embassy.

At this point, it isn't clear whether any outside pressure could move Mugabe, a cunning survivor who has ruled the country for 28 years.

The United States is likely to fail in its campaign at the United Nations for an international arms embargo against Zimbabwe and a ban on travel by its officials, the New York Times reported.  The campaign faces opposition from South Africa, Russia and China. South Africa, Zimbabwe's neighbor, insists that the election is an internal affair.

U.S. could move unilaterally
But the United States could move unilaterally to carry out the sanctions Bush announced. And they represent "a significant toughening of current policy toward Zimbabwe," the Times said.

Current U.S. sanctions apply to about 140 members of Zimbabwe's governing elite and the businesses they control. The new sanctions would expand that list. They also would restrict the Zimbabwean government's ability to do business with American companies and potentially allow the United States to freeze Zimbabwean assets in American banks.

"This certainly steps up pretty dramatically the scale of punitive action," J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the Times.

"It's long overdue, but having Bush get out there and say some hard things is very important," Morrison said.

The White House said the United States would continue to provide food aid to needy Zimbabweans and drug treatment for people with AIDS. That assistance is delivered mostly through private relief groups and United Nations agencies, not the government.

It will take at least weeks for the Bush administration to develop the new sanctions.

Mugabe's invitation
Meanwhile, Mugabe signaled his strategy for calming world opinion by making overtures to the opposition.

Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, rejected Mugabe's invitation for him to attend the inauguration on Sunday, Reuters reported Tsvangirai had enough followers to defeat Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party in a March election, but the official count left him short of outright victory, forcing Friday's runoff.

Mugabe spokesman George Charamba told Reuters the invitation was extended "in the spirit of the president's wish to reach out. ... It is a major step towards political engagement."

But Tsvangirai said: "I can't give support to an exercise I'm totally opposed to ... the whole world has condemned it, the Zimbabwean people will not give this exercise legitimacy and support."

An appeal to the African Union
Instead, he said, the opposition intends to ask the African Union nations to reject the election results and to coordinate negotiations for a resolution of the crisis.

The Union has some powerful reasons to consider the requests. Zimbabwe's political turmoil and ongoing economic crisis threaten stability in southern Africa.

Further pressure is coming from Human Rights Watch and other non-government organizations as well as from Western powers. Human Rights Watch, which has offices in South Africa, called Sunday for the Union to uphold its own charter by declaring Zimbabwe's runoff election as "an illegal means of maintaining power."  It urged the Union to suspend Zimbabwe from its ranks and to press for the deployment of peacekeepers to stop the violence.

Mugabe flew into Egypt overnight, Reuters reported

"As Mugabe arrived, the African Union's own monitors said Friday's election did not meet their standards," Reuters said. "They were the third African observer group to condemn the poll."

Regional power South Africa, a key player in the Zimbabwe crisis, called for Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the opposition party, MDC, to enter talks on a transitional government.

"The statement was the first time South Africa has publicly called for a unity government and could indicate the line that the African Union will take," Reuters said.

Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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