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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 21:28 GMT
Zimbabwe suspension bid fails
Journalists in Zimbabwe protest outside Zimbabwean parliament
Zimbabwe police arrested three protesting journalists
Commonwealth foreign ministers have decided not to recommend that Zimbabwe be suspended from the organisation, but they have urged President Robert Mugabe to end the political violence ravaging the country.

The ministers also called on Zimbabwe to allow the immediate deployment of international observers ahead of presidential elections in March.

The outcome of the meeting in London was a blow to UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who had hoped to have Zimbabwe suspended from the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group
Acts as the Commonwealth's watchdog
Any decision must be ratified by the Commonwealth's heads of states
Has eight members: Australia; Bangladesh; Barbados; Botswana; Canada; Malaysia; Nigeria; UK

"The issue that is on the table at the moment is to ensure that we have free and fair elections," said Botswana's Foreign Minister Mompati Merafhe, who is chairman of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG).

"There are indeed other concerns... (but) we do not believe this is the propitious time to try and engage in a policy of antagonism with anybody."

Laws condemned

The BBC's political correspondent James Robbins says the CMAG had been split on broadly racial lines: the old white Commonwealth represented by Britain, Australia and Canada, urged Zimbabwe's suspension; the new Commonwealth of African and Asian countries preferred words of condemnation.

The compromise was a statement calling on the government of Zimbabwe to ensure free and fair presidential elections in March.

The CMAG also condemned a recently passed security law and a media bill which is currently being debated in Zimbabwe's parliament.

Jack Straw
Straw: Zimbabwe has "failed" to maintain press freedom

Outside the Zimbabwean parliament buildings, about 40 journalists from independent newspapers protesting at the controversial bill were dispersed by riot police.

A police spokesman said that three were arrested for holding an illegal gathering, under the new security law which came into effect last week.

The Associated Press news agency reported that the three were later released without charge. An official with the independent media institute said that the three had been arrested as they left the protest peacefully.

'Violent intimidation'

Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon said both the new Zimbabwean laws were "contrary to fundamental Commonwealth values".

I can say without equivocation that this bill in the original form was the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties guaranteed by the constitution

Eddison Zvobgo
Zimbabwean MP
He urged Zimbabwe to allow in foreign election observers immediately.

Mr McKinnon also said that the action group would meet again 1 March, the day before the opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia to consider possible suspension if the political violence in Zimbabwe continued.

Sharp words

Mr Straw did admit that the Commonwealth reaction was what the government had expected, but he had sharp words for Mugabe's government.

"The overall result is less than we had hoped for but more than we had expected," he said.

"We and the rest of the Commonwealth went the extra mile at Abuja in September, where Zimbabwe agreed with the rest of the Commonwealth that they would stick to the clear principles of ... freedom of speech, human rights, (and) allowing oppositions to operate effectively."

"They have patently failed to do so."

Earlier, he accused Mr Mugabe's government of "violent intimidation of the opposition and the media".

Political violence in Zimbabwe has increased in recent weeks and the European Union says it will impose sanctions against the Zimbabwean leadership unless the election is free and fair.


MPs from Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party were called to a special meeting to hammer out a common front before parliament met to debate the media bill.

Journalists protesting outside Zimbabwe parliament
Journalists risk prison if they break any of the new laws

The bill would give the government tight control on all journalists operating in the country and foreign correspondents would only be allowed in to cover specific events.

Journalists would have to apply to a government-appointed commission for a licence every year and risk two years in prison for breaking a long list of regulations.

The government had originally wanted to pass the bill last year and debate has been delayed on several occasions following criticism from journalists, the international community and southern African leaders.

The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"Pressure on Mugabe is growing"
Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon
"We could be on the move very rapidly"
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai
"The violence has to stop in all the areas"
Writer and war veteran George Shire
"It is not for Britain to impose its wish"
See also:

30 Jan 02 | Africa
Zimbabwe splits Commonwealth
30 Jan 02 | Africa
Suspension 'not the answer'
28 Jan 02 | UK Politics
UK's patchy sanctions record
29 Jan 02 | Africa
Analysis: Crunch time for Mugabe
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