Hundreds rally a year after Zimbabwe regime critic's abduction

Demonstrators marched in Harare in 2016 to mark the one year anniversary of the disappearance of Itai Dzamara (AFP Photo/JEKESAI NJIKIZANA) (AFP/File)

Harare (AFP) - Hundreds rallied in Zimbabwe's capital Wednesday over the shadowy disappearance of an opposition activist a year ago, as the United States led calls for a probe into "politically motivated violence".

Zimbabwe's 92-year-old ruler Robert Mugabe, who has led the country since independence from Britain in 1980, has been accused by critics at home and abroad of cracking down on opponents and smothering democracy.

Protesters including opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai demanded that Mugabe release information on how Itai Dzamara, a former journalist and harsh regime critic, was seized by unidentified men.

Dzamara was the leader of an anti-government campaign group that sought to force Mugabe to resign over the collapse of the economy, largely sparked by the seizure of white-owned farms which led to a dramatic fall in agricultural production.

On March 9 last year, Dzamara was bundled into an unmarked car while coming out of a barbers shop and he has not been seen since.

"Why should the regime resort to violence whenever the people want to express themselves?" Tsvangirai told the rally in Harare's African Unity square, where Dzamara had staged sit-in protests and was once beaten by pro-Mugabe supporters.

"We will hound this government forever and ever until they bring Itai to us alive or dead."

The demonstrators danced, sang and shouted political slogans.

"Stop abductions now", read a placard at the protest while another demanded that authorities "End forced disappearances now".

Several foreign countries have repeatedly pushed the government over the fate of Dzamara, whose family has been holding public prayer meetings and has gone to court in a bid to get some answers.

- Government denials -

"The United States remains deeply concerned about Mr. Dzamara's whereabouts and wellbeing," the US embassy said in a statement.

"The Zimbabwean constitution guarantees fundamental human rights and freedoms for all citizens, including Mr. Dzamara.

"We also encourage the government of Zimbabwe to fully investigate cases of politically motivated violence and abductions to ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted and victims receive justice."

The European Union expressed disappointment at that Dzamara's disappearance remained unsolved.

"Those responsible for his abduction have yet to face justice," it said.

"The EU attaches great importance to strengthening the rule of law, human rights, and the consolidation of democracy in Zimbabwe, as set out in the government's own constitutional reform agenda."

The government denied all accusations that it was involved and said it had no information on Dzamara's whereabouts.

"(We) will leave no stone unturned in the investigation about the disappearance of this citizen of ours," Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa told parliament Wednesday.

"We would not want to have any citizen in this country to suffer or to disappear without any trace."

Amnesty International called on the authorities to "genuinely look" for Dzamara.

"This appears to be a well-orchestrated plot to silence a well-known government critic, and is a deeply troubling indictment of the state of freedom of expression in Zimbabwe," said Deprose Muchena, the group's director for southern Africa.