Zambian authorities on Thursday deported top Zimbabwe opposition figure Tendai Biti, rejecting his claim for asylum after he fled allegations of inciting post-election protests.
“As I am speaking to you right now he has been handed over to the Zimbabwean police,” Biti’s lawyer Gilbert Phiri said, charging that his client had been deported in defiance of a court ruling.
A veteran figure in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Biti fled to Zambia on Wednesday, amid what his party says is a crackdown over its claims that last week’s landmark elections in Zimbabwe were rigged.
The UN’s refugee agency said it was “gravely concerned about reports of the forced return” of Biti, an internationally-respected finance minister in Zimbabwe’s 2009-2013 power-sharing government.
“Forcibly returning refugees and asylum-seekers to their country of origin is a serious violation of international refugee law,” the UNHCR said in a statement.
It called on Zambia to “investigate this reported incident urgently”.
Zambia had swiftly rejected Biti’s asylum claim and said he would be sent back across the border, but the 52-year-old’s legal team filed a challenge keeping him there until the case was reviewed.
However, Zambian government spokeswoman Dora Siliya said the order had not been received until it was too late.
“His asylum was denied on the basis that in his country there is no breakdown in the rule of law,” she said, adding that Biti himself was “running away from the due process of the law” as he is wanted by authorities.
“The court order only came after he was handed back to the Zimbabwe authorities,” she said.
MDC leader Nelson Chamisa said he was “extremely concerned” by news that Biti had been deported and that his current whereabouts were unknown.
“Those who took him are people we have not been able to identify,” Chamisa told AFP.
Chamisa has repeatedly charged that the July 30 presidential election, the first since veteran autocrat Robert Mugabe was ousted by the military in November, was rigged.
The MDC will launch its legal challenge against the results on Thursday, Chamisa said.
Mugabe’s successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa was declared the winner with 50.8 percent of the vote — just enough to avoid a run-off against Chamisa.
– South Africa president flies in –
According to Zimbabwe’s state-run Chronicle newspaper, Biti is among nine suspects sought for inciting protests against alleged rigging which turned deadly on August 1.
The army opened fire on the protests in Harare, killing six people and prompting an international outcry.
Mnangagwa, who is seeking to reverse Zimbabwe’s economic isolation and attract desperately needed foreign investment, had vowed the elections would turn a page on Mugabe’s repressive 37-year rule.
But the aftermath of the polls has been marred by allegations by rights groups as well as the MDC of a crackdown on opposition members, including beatings and arrests.
Biti’s deportation is likely to come up when South African President Cyril Ramaphosa heads to Zambia on Thursday at the start of a two-day regional tour that will also see him head to troubled DR Congo as it gears up for elections in December.
Ramaphosa will meet with Zambian President Edgar Lungu followed by talks Friday with DR Congo’s Joseph Kabila.
In a statement, the South African presidency also said Ramaphosa would also fly to Zimbabwe for Mnangagwa’s inauguration on Sunday, but this could be delayed by Chamisa’s legal challenge.
“Those results represent a total negation of the will of the people,” MDC lawyer Thabani Mpofu told reporters in Harare on Wednesday, charging that the election results “grossly mathematically fail to tally”.
He said the party would reveal “a secret weapon” in court, but analysts said the challenge was highly unlikely to overturn the declared results.
The Zimbabwe Election Commission — synonymous with fraud under Mugabe — insists the elections were free and fair this time around.
International monitors praised the conduct of the election itself, although EU observers said Mnangagwa benefited from an “un-level playing field” and a degree of voter intimidation.