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Zimbabwean opposition leader beaten

HARARE, Zimbabwe --Zimbabwe's most prominent opposition leader was seriously injured -- with deep gashes on his head and shoulders -- from beatings and torture by police who broke up a public meeting that had been declared illegal, colleagues said Monday.

Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the Movement for Democratic Change, was in a suburban jail, said his wife, Susan, who was allowed to visit a day after he was detained at Sunday's meeting of the "Save Zimbabwe Campaign." She said some of her husband's wounds had been sutured and heavily bandaged, and one eye was badly swollen.

Lawyers said at least five other opposition, anti-government and civic leaders were among scores of people arrested in the latest crackdown on dissent by President Robert Mugabe's security forces and political supporters.

The 83-year-old Mugabe has been blamed by opponents for repression, corruption, acute food shortages, deepening economic woes and inflation of some 1,600 percent -- the highest in the world.

Police said they shot and killed one demonstrator when they broke up Sunday's meeting in the western suburb of Highfield with tear gas, water cannon and live ammunition.

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said officers arrested Tsvangirai, 54, and other top party officials as they "instigated people to come out and commit acts of violence." He said 200 opposition party "thugs" had attacked about 20 policemen.

Organizers identified the dead protester as Gift Tandare, an activist of Tsvangirai's opposition group. Among the injured was opposition leader Lovemore Madhuku, who collapsed after being assaulted by police and was taken to the main hospital in Harare, where he was in serious condition, according to the Save Zimbabwe Campaign.

Bvudzijena told state TV that three police officers were hospitalized with injuries.

Lawyers for Tsvangirai filed an urgent court order to allow them immediate access to him and the other detainees, as well as medical treatment for them. The court papers said Tsvangirai should either be charged or released Tuesday, within the usual 48-hour framework for such cases.

Zimbabwean police have routinely ignored such court orders in the past.

In Washington, the State Department condemned the crackdown, saying it was shocked by reports of injuries suffered by opposition leaders. The attacks "were an indication of the repressive nature of the Mugabe dictatorship," deputy spokesman Tom Casey said, urging the government to provide medical treatment for victims and for their release as soon as possible.

The European Union criticized the "ongoing violent suppression of the freedom of opinion and of assembly, as well as of other fundamental rights" in Zimbabwe.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the reported beating of the opposition leaders, spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York. "Such actions violate the basic democratic right of citizens to engage in peaceful assembly," Montas said.

The U.S.-based Freedom House, an advocacy group for spreading democracy, called on the government to release the opposition figures in custody.

"Zimbabwe has been heading down hill for some time, but this episode, and particularly the beating of Mr. Tsvangirai, if confirmed, marks a new low," said executive director Jennifer Windsor.

Organizers of Sunday's prayer meeting -- an alliance of opposition, civic society, church leaders and student and anti-government groups -- said Tsvangirai fainted three times after being beaten by police.

"This is not consistent with the normal police brutality we have witnessed. The injuries were deliberate and an attempt to assassinate him," top opposition official Eliphas Mukonoweshure said.

Since founding the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999, the first major challenge to Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party, Tsvangirai was seldom seen in the forefront of defiant anti-government street protests, preferring a strategy of lower profile civil disobedience.

In 2005, some opposition colleagues began questioning whether Tsvangirai could bring down Mugabe and his party.

Tsvangirai accused the ruling party of rigging parliamentary elections that year and called on Zimbabweans to defend their vote, but did not make clear how the opposition would fight back. In recent years, the opposition has not made good on threats to stage strikes to shut down the government.

Tsvangirai has been assaulted and harassed in the past. In 1999, when he was rumored to be considering a challenge to Mugabe, attackers who were suspected of being ruling party militants assaulted him and tried to hurl him out of a 10th-floor window. The screams of staff forced the assailants to flee.

Just two weeks before he challenged Mugabe in a 2002 presidential election, Tsvangirai was arrested and faced the first of two treason charges, allegedly for plotting to kill Mugabe. He was acquitted but still faces another treason charge for allegedly calling for the violent overthrow of Mugabe, Zimbabwe's only ruler since it won independence from Britain in 1980.

Opposition candidates and supporters have been killed, beaten, tortured, raped or abducted in state-sanctioned political violence. Many have been repeatedly arrested.

Opposition spokeswoman Thoko Khupe said police "unleashed a wave of indiscriminate violence" to clear people from the area where Sunday's meeting had been planned. She also said police in the eastern city of Mutare on Monday arrested at least 100 people for protesting Sunday's arrests.

As the economic pressure intensifies in Zimbabwe, criticism also is mounting within Mugabe's party. There are signs of discontent in the security services on whom he depends, as even police are not completely cushioned from economic shocks. Mugabe himself has complained that rivals are jockeying to succeed him but insists he has no plans to step aside.

Affable and self-effacing, Tsvangirai rose from humble beginnings as a textile factory worker and labor leader to form the first credible opposition to Mugabe and his party. Mugabe has consistently portrayed Tsvangirai as a stooge of Britain and the United States.

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Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

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