- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Dancing and cheering, lawmakers approved sweeping constitutional changes yesterday that prominent lawyers have called the greatest challenge yet to Zimbabwean civil liberties.

Ruling-party representatives erupted into celebration after parliament voted 103-29 to endorse the constitutional overhaul that sharply restricts private-property rights and allows the government to deny passports to its critics. The 22-clause Constitutional Amendment Bill now goes to President Robert Mugabe to sign into law.

The slate of amendments, the 17th since independence from Britain in 1980, strips landowners of their right to appeal expropriation and declares that all real estate is now on a 99-year lease from the government.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said this would stop 5,000 evicted white farmers from frustrating land redistribution to black Zimbabweans.

“It will close the chapter of colonization,” Mr. Chinamasa said during a stormy half-hour debate that preceded the vote.

The bill also gives the government authority to deny passports if it is deemed in the national interest.

“This will take away the right of those people to go outside the country and ask other countries to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe,” said Mr. Chinamasa, who is among 200 of Mr. Mugabe’s elite barred from traveling or owning bank accounts in the United States and European Union countries.

The overhaul also calls for a new 66-seat Senate to be formed, which critics charge the ruling party will use to increase its patronage powers.

There had been concerns within Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front that the party might not mobilize enough support to pass the bill after it cleared a preliminary ballot 61-28.

Twenty-eight members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which has 41 seats in parliament, voted against the bill. The lone independent legislator, Mr. Mugabe’s former propaganda chief Jonathan Moyo, faced a barrage of catcalls when he, too, opposed the changes.

The MDC says approval of the amendments will destroy any hope of agreement with Western donors for desperately needed aid.

A team from the International Monetary Fund wraps up a two-week visit Friday to reassess Zimbabwe’s economic crisis ahead of a Sept. 9 board meeting that could expel the country for failing to make payments on $295 million in debt.

The seizure of white-owned commercial farms, combined with years of drought, have crippled the country’s agriculture-based economy. Some 4 million are in urgent need of food aid, according to U.N. estimates.

Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand are lobbying the U.N. Security Council to indict Mr. Mugabe and his government in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said.

Because Zimbabwe is not a party to the International Criminal Court, Mr. Mugabe could only be indicted with a reference from the Security Council, Mr. Downer told Australian television.

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