- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

LONDON The governing board of British cricket decided that England's team will head to Zimbabwe to play in the World Cup, despite urging by Prime Minister Tony Blair to boycott the regime of Robert Mugabe.

The England and Wales Cricket Board, in voting unanimously to make the February trip to Harare, insisted they would not let their athletes become political pawns.

"Sport, sadly, is once again being used as a political tool to fill the policy vacuum that seemingly exists," said Tim Lamb, chief executive of the board.

He added: "We are not, of course, immune to, or unaware of, what is happening in the wider world, but we do not believe that it is our role to make subjective moral judgments about the various regimes in the different cricket-playing nations."

The issue has sparked debate in recent weeks among sports fans, politicians and human rights campaigners throughout the Commonwealth, a grouping of Britain and many of its former colonies.

Sign-waving protesters pushed their way into the building where Mr. Lamb held his news conference yesterday, and delayed the announcement for two hours.

The Harare Sports Club, where the team would play, is less than a mile from "torture and detention centers," said Mugabe critic Peter Tatchell. "The England cricket team should not go."

The Mugabe regime has imposed several restrictions on press freedom and political activity in the past year, even as Zimbabwe's economy has collapsed and it deals with a regionwide drought.

Mr. Mugabe also has pursued a coercive land-redistribution program targeting the country's small but highly productive group of white farmers. This, aid groups say, has disrupted planting and increased the risk of famine.

U.S. and private relief organizations say that Mr. Mugabe has exploited the food crisis for political gain, channeling grain and other aid to supporters while cutting off areas where the opposition is strong.

Mr. Blair's office yesterday reiterated opposition to the match but made no effort to intervene.

"As the prime minister and other ministers had said consistently, it was not the government's job to order the cricket authorities not to send the England team to Zimbabwe," a spokesman said.

Mr. Lamb said there are more meaningful ways in which the British government, the Commonwealth and the international community could express displeasure at what is happening in Zimbabwe.

He also reaffirmed the board's determination to deny the Mugabe regime any opportunity to exploit the English team's presence in Harare.

"We will not take part in any ceremonial activities that could imply any support for the regime or be used as a propaganda platform," he said.

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