analysisBy Richard Lee
President Robert Mugabe's election campaign in Zimbabwe has begun in earnest. Not with the launch of a new manifesto or the erection of massive new billboards trumpeting ZANU PF's successes but with the politically-motivated arrest - and detention - of one of the country's leading civil society activists, Okay Machisa.
As the Chairperson of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and Director of Zimrights, Machisa, has long been a target of Mugabe and his party. But few would have expected the severity of the state's attack on him this week.
Picked up on Monday and farcically charged with publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the state as well as fraud and forgery, Machisa has now found himself remanded in custody for 16 days.
In a decision that would have caused great delight in State House, a Harare magistrate denied him bail on the basis of three absurdly flimsy reasons - namely that the case is a matter of national interest, that the investigations are so complex that the state needs more time to complete them and that his co-accused had been remanded in custody.
The reality is that the arrest and detention of Machisa is not based on law. It is a blatant attempt to intimidate civil society in the run-up to this year's elections. Indeed, it signals an intensification of ZANU-PF's attacks on democracy and human rights - and the real start of the election campaign.
"We condemn this calculated assault on activists that is meant to cow civil society organizations that are fighting for democratic reforms before the next election," said a statement from Crisis Coalition. "We reiterate our position that the political environment in Zimbabwe is not yet conducive for a free and fair election."
It will be interesting to see if anyone from the MDC side of government speaks out and demands Machisa's immediate release. It will also be interesting to see if SADC says anything because this is all part of a calculated plan to use violence, intimidation and the might of the unreformed security sector in the run-up to the elections to ensure that ZANU-PF and Mugabe triumph at the polls.
They learned from the 2008 elections that they need to start their electoral campaign of fear and harassment long before voting day. And they have - launching their campaign before a date for the elections has even been announced.
And the conclusion to the statement from Crisis Coalition is spot on - apart from the use of the word possible rather than probable.
"We appeal for solidarity action and for regional and international pressure on the Zimbabwe state to respect the rule of law," urged the organisation. "Such action is important to militate against a possible surge in the harassment and detention of activists especially as we head toward the general election."