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Saturday, 9 March, 2002, 15:56 GMT
UK Zimbabweans protest at elections
Jon Mutinha, 37, a Zimbabwean living in Britain
One of the early arrivals outside the Zimbabwe High Commission
Zimbabweans living in Britain have held a protest at what they say is a denial of their right to vote in this weekend's elections.

Zimbabwe has begun the most fiercely contested presidential elections since independence from Britain in 1980.

There are serious concerns about how the election is being run, with claims of "massive intimidation", ballot-rigging and gerrymandering by the incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, and his followers.


We want to show the people that are in Zimbabwe, and going to vote, that we are with them

Hilton Mendelsohn
Many of those living in the UK have not been given the right to a postal vote.

They held a vigil outside Zimbabwe's High Commission in London on Saturday, at which they filled in symbolic postal votes and placed them in a giant ballot box.

A spokesman for the vigil said those who attended "are only a few of the hundreds of thousands" who should be voting but who have been barred from doing so.

He said they were being prevented "by blatant rigging of the voters' roll and other means, including the arbitrary withdrawal of citizenship", in what he called a "parody of an election".

'Keep focus on'

Hilton Mendelsohn has lived in Britain for three years and said not being able to take part in the voting procedure was unfair but not surprising.

"I've never thought this election would be free or fair," he said.

Voting staff holding sealed ballot boxes
"Hundreds of thousands" have been denied a vote
He said the organisers of the vigil sought to keep the world focused on Zimbabwe, "so that hopefully we can get a condemnation of a flawed process".

Officials estimate there are about 40,000 British nationals in Zimbabwe, of whom about 25,000 have registered with the British High Commission.

In recent months there have been reports that ministers in London have drawn up plans to evacuate British passport-holders, should the country dissolve into violent chaos in the wake of the elections.

However, the Foreign Office has played down such reports, saying it has emergency evacuation plans for most countries as part of routine procedures.

Commonwealth split

MEP Glenys Kinnock warned on Friday that the international community must be ready to respond decisively if the election is judged to have been rigged.

Lesie de Jager, 34, a white farmer from Lions Den, attacked on his farm by settlers, arrives at a hospital in Harare
Violence has been reported across the country
Mrs Kinnock, co-president of the EU-African Caribbean Pacific joint parliamentary assembly, said: "The EU must continue to make it clear that this election will determine the future of Zimbabwe and the whole of the southern Africa region.

"When the polls close, the international community must be clear and swift in its response should the legitimacy of the process be in question."

A Mugabe victory could possibly split the Commonwealth if a consensus on expelling Zimbabwe is not reached.

Earlier this week its heads of government decided to set up a committee to decide what action to take against Zimbabwe after the elections, if Commonwealth observers find them to have been rigged.

The summit opted to set up the committee rather than back UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's argument for Zimbabwe's immediate suspension from the Commonwealth, in the run-up to the ballot.


Key stories

The vote

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REGIONAL ROUNDUP
See also:

09 Mar 02 | Africa
Zimbabwe begins crucial poll
06 Mar 02 | Africa
Q&A: Zimbabwe election
04 Feb 02 | UK
Giving voice to freedom
17 Aug 01 | Africa
Fleeing Zimbabwe for UK
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