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An open truck carries farmers wearing face masks on the first day of the curfew in Harare, Wednesday, July, 22, 2020.Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/The Associated Press

At a chaotic roadblock on the edge of Harare, the police tossed back the essential-worker permit that Mateline Zilawe tried to show them. “Go back home and stay indoors,” they ordered her.

Cars and buses were backed up in a kilometre-long traffic snarl at the roadblock as police clamped down on commuters to stop them entering the downtown core of the Zimbabwean capital on Wednesday – the first day of new lockdown rules.

Officially, the new restrictions stem from the COVID-19 pandemic. But with a major anti-corruption protest scheduled for next week, many Zimbabweans are convinced that the crackdown is aimed at crushing the opposition. Key supporters of the July 31 protest have already been arrested as the government tightens its grip on the country, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed countrywide.

With the Zimbabwean economy sharply deteriorating this year, food prices soaring, the local currency weakening and strikes erupting among nurses and doctors, the government has been determined to quell the discontent and block the planned protest.

“I think all this is political,” said Ms. Zilawe, a 27-year-old supermarket cashier, after she was turned back at the roadblock.

“The authorities now view everyone walking about in the city as anti-government,” she told The Globe and Mail. Police and soldiers are “randomly arresting” people in the central business district, she said.

Protests are rarely permitted by Zimbabwe’s authoritarian government. Security forces killed 20 people at two previous protests in Harare in 2018 and 2019, after an election that the opposition considered fraudulent.

Hundreds of journalists, activists and health workers have been arrested in recent months, including nurses who were arrested for going on strike.

This week, police arrested an opposition activist, Jacob Ngarivhume, and an investigative journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, both of whom had supported the July 31 protest. Both remained in jail on Wednesday night as their bail hearings were postponed. They are accused of inciting public violence.

Mr. Chin’ono had recently exposed a major corruption scandal in Zimbabwe’s Health Ministry, which allegedly awarded US$60-million in an inflated contract for COVID-19 protective equipment. His revelations led to the arrest of the Health Minister Obadiah Moyo, who was charged with abuse of office and fired from cabinet.

Police broke into the journalist’s house and arrested him on Monday, and then raided the house again on Tuesday to seize cameras and computers.

Amnesty International said the arrest of the journalist and the opposition leader were “designed to intimidate and send a chilling message to journalists, whistle-blowers and activists.” The government was “using the police and courts to silence dissent,” Amnesty said in a statement.

A day after the arrests, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa went on national television to announce the stricter curfew and lockdown measures – although Zimbabwe’s confirmed total of 2,034 cases is far fewer than the nearly 400,000 cases in neighbouring South Africa.

Zimbabwe’s freedoms “stand suspended and deferred, in the interest of all of us,” Mr. Mnangagwa said.

“All non-working sections of our population will be required to stay at home, except for purposes of securing food, water and health services.”

He also announced that all non-essential business premises must close by 3 p.m. every day. And he announced a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily – one of the strictest curfews on the African continent.

A prominent opposition leader, former finance minister Tendai Biti, said the new lockdown regulations have nothing to do with the pandemic. “It is about paranoia and authoritarian consolidation,” he said in a tweet on Tuesday night.

“We will resist [this] de facto Declaration of State of Emergency,” he said. “We will resist this curtailment of our rights.”

On Wednesday morning, a police roadblock was set up near National Heroes Acre, the burial ground for Zimbabwe’s liberation fighters, about six kilometres from central Harare.

Ms. Zilawe, the supermarket cashier, said she is often able to pay a bribe to the police to get past the roadblock to reach her workplace. “The police at roadblocks, just like many people working in Zimbabwe, are hungry,” she said.

But on Wednesday, they refused to let her pass, forcing her to lose a day’s pay at her job.

Jimson Mhandu, a 33-year-old nurse at a private clinic in Harare, was another of the hundreds of people who were turned back at the roadblock. He was ordered off a public bus and told to go home.

“I never thought, as a nurse, I would ever be forced to go home during the COVID-19 lockdown,” he told The Globe.

“It’s due to the government’s fears of the protests. The authorities want to instill as much fear in us as possible, so that on July 31 we all stay away from the protests.”

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