By Cris Chinaka
HARARE – Zimbabwe’s government returned the passport on Wednesday of a private newspaper publisher seized under a new law allowing the state to bar travel by its critics but took another from a trade unionist.
Trevor Ncube, who owns Zimbabwe Independent Newspapers and also publishes South Africa’s weekly Mail and Guardian newspaper was given his passport back. A week ago he was forced to surrender it to security agents as President Robert Mugabe’s government renewed a crackdown against opponents.
Ncube said the government returned his passport on Wednesday without any explanation, but before the courts could consider an urgent application filed by his lawyers on Monday.
The government has not directly commented on the issue.
Ncube’s lawyers filed the application with the Zimbabwe High Court challenging the seizure, arguing it violated basic freedoms of movement and expression and was “unreasonable, irrational and unjustifiable” in a democratic society.
“The Attorney-General’s Office simply phoned the lawyers and said they should come and collect the passport, and we got it back,” Ncube said.
“They did not give any explanations but we understand I think the government realised that the courts would not sanction their arbitrary and totally unjustifiable behaviour,” he told Reuters.
Opposition Movement for Democratic Change spokesman Paul Themba-Nyathi said on Wednesday that he had also been instructed to collect his passport, which was seized last week from the immigration department but was not given a reason for the government’s change of heart.
While Ncube and Themba-Nyathi were getting their travel documents back, immigration officials confiscated the passport of outspoken trade unionist Raymond Majongwe as he returned home from a business trip to Nigeria.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions said in a statement that the government’s actions were in retaliation for travel sanctions imposed on Mugabe and his officials by several Western countries over charges of rights abuses.
Government officials were not available for immediate comment. But on Saturday, Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party endorsed the travel ban against government critics.
Ncube, who is based in South Africa, has been a vocal critic of both Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The Mail and Guardian has been a thorn in Mugabe’s side, frequently running stories critical of his rule.
Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF in August used its parliamentary majority to push through a set of constitutional changes, among them a provision allowing the government to impose travel bans on “traitors” or those deemed harming national interests.
Critics say the new legislation is part of a broader push to entrench Mugabe’s power. Media laws and security provisions have been stepped up as opponents accuse Mugabe of rigging elections and suppressing opponents.
Mugabe’s party recommended on Saturday that the government act against hostile rights groups and asked security forces to draw up a list of people whose passports should be taken.
Analysts say the new crackdown on critics shows panic within ZANU-PF ranks in the face of a deepening economic crisis many blame on 81-year-old Mugabe — Zimbabwe’s sole ruler since independence from Britain in 1980. — Reuter