HARARE – Police arrested trade union leaders and scores of activists nationwide on Thursday ahead of planned marches over the country’s worsening economic crisis, lawyers said.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights spokesman Kumbirai Mafunda told AFP that Peter Mutasa, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) — the country’s largest trade union — was among those detained, along with activists in three major towns.

Also arrested was Japhet Moyo, the ZCTU’s secretary general.

Mutasa had called for protests in Harare on Thursday despite a police ban on public gatherings in the capital due to a recent cholera outbreak.

ZCTU planned a national strike to protest against sharp price hikes, a new tax on electronic transactions and daily shortages ranging from fuel to bread as Zimbabwe’s economy endures its worst crisis since 2008.

“I confirm the arrests of ZCTU president Mutasa and secretary general (Japhet) Moyo at their offices and scores of other unionists in Harare, Masvingo and Mutare,” Mafunda told AFP.

“The constitution provides for the right to demonstrate and petition.”

Scuffles erupted as police arrested the ZCTU leaders after they addressed a crowd outside the unions’ headquarters in Harare.

Before his arrest, a defiant Mutasa told journalists: “We are demonstrating peacefully against hardships. We are here to make the authorities know that Zimbabweans are suffering.”

Large numbers of police were on duty in Harare armed with truncheons, guns and teargas canisters while water cannon trucks were parked on some streets.

In Mutare, police broke up protests and arrested more than two dozen marchers.

In Gweru, police allowed a march but stopped protesters from handing a petition to the Provincial Affairs Minister Larry Mavhima.

In Bulawayo, police forced the ZCTU office shut and stood guard outside.

War on citizens … Police beating up a ZCTU protester in Harare
Forced shut … The ZCTU office in Bulawayo was watched by police throughout the day
Blockade … Police in Mutare stop ZCTU protesters from leaving the trade union’s offices

Zimbabwe’s moribund economy has hit new lows in recent days with shops struggling to stock shelves, medicine running out and long queues outside petrol stations.

The local “bond note” currency, which in theory has the same value as the US dollar, has been in freefall in recent weeks, raising fears of a return to the hyper-inflation that wrecked national finances before former President Robert Mugabe was forced into a unity government with the opposition in 2009.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power last year after Mugabe was ousted by the military, has vowed to ensure essential daily goods are available, but few believe the government has the crisis under control.

MDC leader Nelson Chamisa condemned the police crackdown on the unionists.

“The arrest of ZCTU president Mutasa and other labour leaders confirms that abuse of the past is back,” Chamisa said on Twitter. “The recent continuous heavy deployment of police in Harare’s CBD is evidence of fear. The guilty are afraid. Force and terror are short-lived tools of the weak and vulnerable.”