Zimbabwe riot police fire teargas at opposition supporters

Baton attacks on crowd waiting to hear speech by Movement for Democratic Change leader

A riot policeman attacks a woman outside the Movement for Democratic Change headquarters in Harare. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP via Getty Images

Zimbabwean police with riot gear fired teargas and struck people who gathered to hear a speech by the country’s top opposition leader amid growing frustration with the collapsing economy.

Dozens of people ran and dodged baton blows in the capital, Harare, on Wednesday. Officers cordoned off the Movement for Democratic Change party headquarters before Nelson Chamisa’s speech and patrolled with water cannon.

Public discontent has grown in Zimbabwe with the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has struggled to fulfil promises of economic prosperity and greater political freedom. The health system has largely collapsed amid the worst economic crisis in more than a decade.

After some of his supporters were left injured and bleeding on Wednesday, he told the gathering that Mnangagwa has scaled new levels of dictatorship. “Our country is burning,” he said. “Why would you beat people who are at their head office? Is the MDC now a banned party?”

The opposition leader repeated demands for dialogue to form what he called a “transitional authority” tasked with carrying out democratic reforms and a credible election. Chamisa asserted that Zimbabwe’s crushing economic problems amount to “a soft genocide”.

Only pro-government marches have been allowed in recent months, while similar moves by the opposition, labour and human rights groups have been met with strong police action.

Police denied accusations they had banned this latest event. A spokesman, Paul Nyathi, said police and opposition organisers had agreed to move the event to a venue on the city’s outskirts.

The opposition said it had a letter confirming the ban. The latest actions “show how democratic space is still suppressed just like during Mugabe’s time”, said a spokesman, Luke Tamborinyoka.

Some Zimbabweans allege that repression is worse than under the late Robert Mugabe, who oversaw widespread rights abuses that led to international sanctions against individuals including Mnangagwa.

The state-run Herald newspaper reported that police on Wednesday dispersed opposition supporters “who were causing disorder”.

Also on Wednesday, treason charges were dropped against outspoken pastor Evan Mawarire after he was accused of plotting to overthrow the government during protests over the economic crisis early this year, Mawarire and the lawyers group said.

Frustrations are running high as the economy crumbles. Inflation was last calculated at 300% by the International Monetary Fund in August, the world’s second highest after Venezuela.

Mnangagwa has pleaded for more time, saying austerity measures he introduced mean things will get worse before they improve.

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