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Thursday, 20 December, 2001, 18:20 GMT
Double setback for Mugabe
President Robert Mugabe
Mugabe is facing international isolation
Commonwealth ministers have agreed to discuss Zimbabwe formally for the first time early next year.

Correspondents say this could be the first step to a possible suspension.

The situation in Zimbabwe constitutes a serious and persistent violation of the Commonwealth's fundamental political values and the rule of law

CMAG statement

President Robert Mugabe received another setback when parliament adjourned for the year, without passing two controversial bills.

The government had been keen to pass the laws which introduce tight controls on the media and ban independent election monitors before the Christmas break.

Information Minister, Jonathan Moyo had said this would leave next year clear to prepare for presidential elections in March.

But it now appears that parliament will need to reconvene in January in order to pass the bills.

Smart sanctions

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group will meet on 30 January to discuss the democratic situation in Zimbabwe.

The grouping of mostly former British colonies has expressed concern at the political violence in Zimbabwe but correspondents say it has never before officially put the situation there on its agenda.

Morgan Tsvangirai
Morgan Tsvangirai: A fair chance of beating Mugabe in a free and fair poll

"The situation in Zimbabwe constitutes a serious and persistent violation of the Commonwealth's fundamental political values and the rule of law," the CMAG statement said.

Both the European Union and the United States Congress have been taking steps towards targeted sanctions and even neighbouring South Africa has warned the crisis could drag down the economy of the entire region.

The legal committee of Zimbabwe's parliament will consider the controversial bills and debate will resume next year.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called some of the new measures "preposterous", such as the threat of imprisonment for criticising the president.

Burying bad news

Correspondents say this would seriously curtail the opposition's ability to campaign in the run-up to the presidential elections.

In a BBC interview, Mr Straw also accused the Zimbabwean leader of seriously damaging the whole of the economy of Southern Africa by his actions, and of using the Afghanistan crisis as a cover to strengthen his grip on power.

The opposition has sharply criticised the new laws during debate this week, said MP Paul Themba Nyathi.

"There was an outcry. We told them (government) to go and reconsider the bills," Mr Nyathi told Reuters news agency.

Unauthorised reports

Under the proposed media bill, only Zimbabwean citizens would be allowed to work as journalists and even they would need journalism degrees and government licences.

Any breach of the regulations, which includes reporting unauthorised accounts of cabinet discussions, could lead to fines and even imprisonment.

Newspaper billboards
Journalists have condemned the media bill

Amendments to the electoral laws would only allow civil servants - susceptible to government pressure - to monitor elections and prevent non-governmental bodies from conducting voter education.

Millions of Zimbabweans living abroad would also be denied the vote.

As the economy has deteriorated, many Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa and elsewhere and many of these are thought likely to support the opposition.

The BBC's Peter Biles
"The first sign of punitive action"
Casey Kelso, Amnesty International
"People are still being tortured and disappeared"
Commonwealth Secretary General, Don McKinnon
"Once you suspend you lose all contact, all influence"
See also:

18 Dec 01 | Africa
Neighbours back Mugabe
10 Sep 01 | Africa
Does South Africa hold the key?
14 Dec 01 | Africa
Police free Mugabe opponent
10 Dec 01 | Africa
Zimbabwe sanctions opposed
05 Dec 01 | Africa
Sanctions loom for Mugabe
10 Sep 01 | Africa
African warning for Mugabe
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