Zimbabwe police on Sunday denied using bullets to disperse protests against President Robert Mugabe at the weekend, as activists called for electoral reforms ahead of general elections in 2018.
For the record no firearm or live bullets were used in the perceived protests throughout the country,” police spokesperson Paul Nyathi said in a statement.
“As police we reiterate that anyone who claims that live bullets were fired at protesters should come forward with evidence.”
A coalition of opposition parties under the banner of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (Nera) had planned country-wide demonstrations on Saturday demanding reform ahead of the 2018 election, when 92-year-old Mugabe plans to stand again.
A month-long protest ban and a massive police deployment, in Harare, however, saw the event fizzle out before it started.
But activists charged the police with intimidation, firing against small groups demonstrating in the suburbs of the capital and arresting close to 100 protesters, a number the police disputed.
“Only 21 people were arrested by the Zimbabwe Republic Police throughout the country… for engaging in acts of disorderly conduct of blocking the smooth flow of traffic and intimidating the general public to side with them and partake in illegal activities,” said the police statement.
Nyathi said the arrested activists included members of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) “who were openly agitating for violence”.
Nera on Saturday said about 100 activists were arrested while others were heavily assaulted by law the enforcement agents.
Campaigners said they would challenge the protest ban through the courts, which had overturned a similar order earlier this month.
Mugabe has vowed a crackdown on dissent and blasted judges for “reckless” rulings allowing previous demonstrations. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party won the last general elections in 2013, which were marred by electoral fraud.
Opposition to the ageing leader’s 36-year rule has grown in recent months with a surge of public demonstrations, triggered by an economic crisis that has left banks short of cash and the government struggling to pay its workers.
Mugabe has often used brutal force to silence his opponents and warned the protesters last week they were “playing a dangerous game”.
Unemployment is about 90% in Zimbabwe, which has been in the grips of a cash shortage worsened by a severe regional drought.
Nera has promised more demonstrations in the coming weeks until the government gives in to their demands