Western powers vowed on Tuesday to keep up pressure on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe despite threats to expel their diplomats if they continue to criticise his government.
Both Britain and the United States have called for more sanctions against Mugabe's government because of what they say was a violent crackdown on opposition leaders and the severe economic crisis they blame on state mismanagement.
Zimbabwe foreign affairs minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi on Monday warned Western envoys in Harare the government would not hesitate to expel those who backed opposition politics.
"Such threats will not deter the UK from speaking out against the continued misgovernance and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe,” said a British foreign office official.
Zimbabwe officials have not said which countries could be targeted for expulsion, but they are thought to include former colonial ruler Britain, the United States, Australia and Sweden.
Mugabe last week told his Western critics “to go hang” and ordered Mumbengegwi to “read the riot act” to Western envoys.
Police arrested main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and 49 others on March 11, accusing them of holding an illegal rally. Tsvangirai and several others were later hospitalised - they said they had been beaten and tortured in custody.
“With the international community, we are pressing (Mugabe) to reverse course and end human rights abuses and political violence,” said British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett.
The European Union recently renewed a range of sanctions including an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe and other government officials. Western governments, including the 27-nation EU, deny they are meddling in Zimbabwean politics.
“We do not want to participate directly in the debate, but we want all Zimbabweans to participate,” said European Commission aid spokesperson Amadeu Altafaj.
The EU"s executive has allocated about $3.99m for ongoing projects in Zimbabwe that support local democracy, human rights defenders and media monitoring.
Altafaj said: “We do not support the opposition as such but (help) so that the opposition and the civil society can express themselves freely.
“If this is interpreted by the government as supporting the opposition it shows there is something wrong.”
Beckett told parliament on Tuesday that Britain was “endeavouring to get a head of steam” behind its call for urgent action by the human rights council at the United Nations.
Britain is also trying to persuade EU colleagues to extend sanctions against Zimbabwe and has demanded direct action against those responsible for Tsvangirai's injuries.
“The severe economic and humanitarian crisis facing ordinary Zimbabweans is entirely the fault of the misguided policies of President Mugabe and his government,” said Beckett.
Zimbabwe has been relying on food aid from UN agencies and Western powers for the last six years as a result of a sharp drop in agricultural production that critics blame on Mugabe's seizures of white-owned farms for distribution to blacks.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's High Court has ordered police to release an opposition leader arrested as he tried to leave the country after government lawyers refused to support the arrest.
Police arrested MDC faction leader Arthur Mutambara on Saturday and kept him in custody at Harare Central Police Station saying he could not leave Zimbabwe because he has a case still pending at the courts.
However, Prof Mutambara's lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa of Mtetwa and Nyambirai made an urgent chamber application at the High Court for his immediate release.
Justice Tendai Uchena, who presided over the case in his chambers, granted Prof Mutambara a default judgment after the police failed to come to court to oppose the application.
The Attorney General's Office was not supportive of the second arrest of Prof Mutambara on similar allegations.
“In view of the attitude of the AG that he did not know why he was arrested for the second time, the (AG's) office was not supportive of the arrest and his placement in detention,” said Justice Uchena.
“I am left with no option but to grant a default judgment.” Reuters/Herald (Harare)