Christians, including four clergymen, who were taking part in a prayer procession for peaceful elections were arrested in Zimbabwe.
A total of 11 Christians were arrested in the city of Bulawayo on February 16 after taking part in the ecumenical procession.
Church leaders had requested permission for a procession around churches in the suburb of Hillside during which participants would pray for peaceful elections.
The prayer initiative was supported by the Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic denominations. Similar events have been held in the past and have passed off peacefully, but this time local police refused permission for the procession, stating that such an event would be disrupted by unruly elements.
Having been refused permission from the police for a 'prayer walk', church members took to their cars for a 'prayer drive' instead.
The Anglican organiser of the initiative, Reverend Noel Scott, was arrested shortly after the drive and charged with failing to comply with police prohibition. Ten others, including a woman, were arrested after congregating for prayer on a pavement outside the police station where Reverend Scott was being held. The ten were charged with obstruction, a charge that carries a penalty of two years in prison or a fine of Z$50,000 (Â£609).
Reverend Scott has since been ordered to surrender his Zimbabwean passport and been released from prison.
Zimbabwe is in the throes of a violent general election campaign characterised by government-sanctioned aggression and intimidation aimed at securing power for 77-year-old President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF Party. The upsurge in political violence claimed 16 lives in January, the highest monthly figure since records began in 2000. Numbered among the dead were 14 supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Recently the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum criticised what it termed the 'carefully orchestrated violence', which the organisation sees as part of a 'modus operandi to crush opposition party support'. The organisation added that the January death toll may be even higher than 16, since many deaths go unreported.
The European Union has imposed sanctions targeting President Mugabe and key members of his regime and withheld ÃŽ128m in development aid for the 2002-2007 period following the expulsion of the head of the EU election monitoring mission. The US Government has said it will match the EU sanctions. Opposition politicians welcomed the imposition of sanctions, but most feel that it has come too late to influence the conduct of the election campaign.
Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said: "The ongoing violence in Zimbabwe which attempts to crush any voices of dissent against the government is an international outrage.
"The treatment of these Christians taking part in a peaceful protest is yet another example of the gross abuse of human rights in this deeply troubled country."