HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was detained in hospital with a deep head wound on Tuesday as world outrage grew over the government’s violent crackdown on political protests.
Tsvangirai, who leads the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said he had suffered “terrible” treatment in police custody following his arrest on Sunday for attempting to attend an opposition prayer rally.
“It was sadistic to attack defenseless people,” the burly former trade unionist said outside the Harare court, where he appeared limping, with a gash in his head and a swollen eye. His head was shaved where the wound had been treated.
MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told Reuters by phone from a Harare hospital where he was detained with Tsvangirai and 48 others that they had been admitted for overnight observation but under police guard.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice led international condemnation of the crackdown, saying Washington held President Robert Mugabe personally responsible for Tsvangirai’s safety.
“The world community has again been shown that the regime of Robert Mugabe is ruthless and repressive and creates only suffering for the people of Zimbabwe,” she said in a statement.
South Africa, Zimbabwe’s powerful neighbor to the south, took the rare step of commenting, calling on Mugabe’s government to respect the rule of law and the rights of all people, including opposition leaders.
Pretoria said it was concerned over the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe, 83, has said he is ready to stand for a new term next year despite an economic crisis that has driven inflation to 1,700 percent with unemployment rocketing.
Tsvangirai was brought to court with about 50 others. Several detainees had to be carried into the courthouse. One had a bloodstained shirt and all appeared disheveled and tired.
State lawyer Florence Ziyambi ordered that the accused be taken to hospital for treatment. Tsvangirai was bundled into a minibus by riot police, while the others went by ambulance.
Rights groups say the group was tortured after their arrest during a prayer meeting organized by a coalition of opposition, church and civic groups to discuss Zimbabwe’s woes.
Police had ordered organizers to postpone the meeting, apparently worried the opposition would launch a street campaign to oust Mugabe.
One man was shot dead when riot squads moved in on the rally. It was the second time in a month police had battled opposition youths in the capital.
Riot police were on guard at the private hospital where Tsvangirai and his colleagues are being treated, and Chamisa said armed police were posted on their bed sides.
“The medical practitioner who attended to them said nearly or all should be put under observation for at least 24 hours,” said defense lawyer Eric Matinenga, but added that the police should have freed them.
Mugabe -- once one of Africa’s liberation heroes but now accused of chronic economic mismanagement and political abuses -- has said he will seek another term if asked by the ruling ZANU-PF party, whether elections are held as planned in 2008 or delayed for two years.
Political analysts say Mugabe’s election plans have alarmed even some senior members of ZANU-PF, aggravating tensions within the party as the long-cowed opposition grows bolder.
Mugabe often blames Zimbabwe’s economic problems on sabotage from former colonial master Britain and other Western nations.
ZANU-PF spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira said Tsvangirai had been intent on getting arrested to win more Western support.
“I think Tsvangirai wanted to be arrested because he wanted more support from London and Washington,” Shamuyarira was quoted as saying by SABC, South Africa’s state broadcaster.
Additional reporting by Cris Chinaka and Nelson Banya in Harare, Shapi Shacinda in Lusaka, Sue Pleming in Washington