Zimbabwe's highest court has barred 3.4 million citizens living abroad — over 20 percent of the country's population — from voting in this month's parliamentary elections.

Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku (search) and four Supreme Court justices said an urgent appeal filed by expatriate Zimbabweans "has no merit and should be dismissed." The ruling, announced Thursday, was reported by state media Friday.

The ruling, from a court led by an ally of President Robert Mugabe (search), is likely to increase questions about whether the March 31 vote can be free and fair.

Most of those abroad are thought to support the main opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (search), which was narrowly defeated in disputed elections in June 2000 and March 2002.

Mugabe's regime has been accused of using violence and intimidation against its opponents in the run-up to March 31 vote, and of manipulating aid in the impoverished country to influence voters.

At a rally Thursday at Bikita, Tsvangirai's home 150 miles southeast of the capital, Mugabe pledged to import grain should current harvests fail, as feared.

"The government will not let anyone starve," Mugabe told supporters. Last year, Mugabe had threatened to prosecute Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube (search) because of his comments on hunger.

Detailed reasons for the ruling on expatriate voters will be released later by Chidyausiku, a former Cabinet minister installed by Mugabe in 2001 after his predecessor, Anthony Gubbay, was forced to step down in the face of death threats.

Happias Zhou, lawyer for the seven British-based Zimbabweans who brought the test case, had argued "their fundamental right to vote had been violated."

Government lawyer Ernest Jena held that those abroad failed to meet residence qualifications.

Thursday's ruling stipulated that only diplomats and servicemen posted abroad will be allowed to vote, by mail.

Opposition lawyers have charged that during past elections, soldiers on missions abroad were ordered to mark multiple ballots for the ruling party.

The opposition complains it has never been allowed full access to rolls containing the names of 5.6 million voters. It fears over 1 million may be "ghost voters" for the ruling party.

Members of the Zimbabwean diaspora last year boosted its failing foreign currency reserves by sending back over US$100 million through a state-sponsore"Homelink" scheme, and some are now calling for a boycott of the program.

The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe estimates the number of economic refugees at up to 4 million, with 2 million in neighboring South Africa, 400,000 in Britain, and substantial numbers in Canada, the United States and Botswana.