HARARE, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe's High Court rejected an opposition demand Monday for the immediate release of long-delayed election results, prolonging a political crisis that has paralyzed this southern African nation for more than two weeks.
Main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai says he won the March 29 election outright, and has accused President Robert Mugabe of holding back the results to orchestrate a runoff and ensure his 28-year grip on power.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change had hoped that the court — though stacked with Mugabe loyalists — would force the election commission to release the results. The commission, which had quickly published results for parliamentary and local elections held the same day, said it was delaying the release of the presidential results so it could verify the votes.
The court rejected the opposition demand and accepted the election commission's explanation that it was investigating anomalies in some of the voting districts, calling it "legally valid" in its ruling. "It can therefore justify the delay."
The commission "has not strayed from the law," the ruling said.
Opposition spokesman Nelson Chamisa said the party — which has refrained from holding major protests in recent weeks — would stage a nationwide "stay away" from work on Tuesday. Political rallies have been banned and the MDC has not called for street protests.
"It's a very sad day in Zimbabwe," MDC lawyer Andrew Makoni said. The court "has given the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission a blank check. We don't know when the ZEC will be ready with results. We don't know what specific time would be reasonable in the eyes of the court."
Government spokesman Bright Matonga said the ruling was "the right judgment" because it allows the electoral commission to complete a thorough review of results. He dismissed charges that the court is biased toward the ruling party, arguing that the opposition was willing to apply to the court because it expected an impartial ruling.
"The electoral commission should be allowed to do its job," Matonga said.
The commission's offices have been shut since last week. The electoral commission has said vote processing is was continuing at a separate location, but the opposition and local rights groups charge that ballots are not being processed.
"The verification, from we understand, has not even begun," Irene Petras, head of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, told reporters in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Petras said that if there is another counting center, no one except the ruling party appears to have been let in.
"The political parties have been told they could not be part of the process," she said.
Tsvangirai was in South Africa on Monday meeting prominent officials, his spokesman Nqobizitha Mlilo said.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, tasked with helping find a solution to the crisis, has argued that confronting Mugabe — accused of undermining democracy and the economy in trying to stay in power — could backfire, and other leaders in the region have followed his lead.
But Mbeki is under increasing pressure to show results, and some in his party have called for firmer action.
Mbeki, who met with Mugabe on Saturday, said over the weekend there was no crisis in Zimbabwe.
Developments in Zimbabwe since the vote have prompted condemnation from Western governments and rights groups, who have documented a wave of politically motivated attacks as Mugabe's allies appear to be using intimidation to ensure victory in an expected runoff.
On Monday, the MDC said looting and arson attacks in northeast Mutoko district since Thursday have forced scores of villagers to flee their homes.
Armed assailants broke into the home of a woman who had worked as an MDC polling agent and slashed her arms with knives as they interrogated her, the party said in a statement. Medical staff at a Harare clinic said they treated a number of people from the area for broken bones, cuts and severe bruising.
Residents of the Ruwa area 30 kilometers (20 miles) east of Harare said ruling party militants attacked suspected opposition supporters Sunday night in a street market and a bar. In northern Centenary, residents said at least 30 huts were torched. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisal.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said it has documented at least 130 attacks on opposition or independent poll monitors since the vote, most of them in the last few days. Two people have turned up dead and 29 were hospitalized with serious injuries, the group said.
Zimbabwe's neighbors, though, have been largely silent. Regional leaders failed at a weekend summit in Zambia to demand the immediate release of results or to condemn Mugabe, as the opposition had hoped.
Instead, the leaders said the results should be verified quickly and in the presence of the candidates or their agents "within the rule of law." Mugabe skipped the summit.
The ruling party also worked to overturn the results of parliamentary elections held alongside the presidential vote. Official results showed Mugabe's party lost its majority in parliament for the first time in Zimbabwe's history.
But electoral officials agreed to recount the results for 23 constituencies, all but one of them won by the opposition. If the re-count, set for Saturday, overturned just a few of those results, the ruling party would regain control of parliament.
A court hearing is set for Tuesday on the opposition's call to stop the re-count.
Meanwhile, two South African satellite technicians were released Monday after being held for more than two weeks on charges of covering the election illegally. The two were in Zimbabwe working for Globecast, which provided satellite services to some broadcasters covering the election. A Globecast representative said they were expected to return to South Africa Monday evening.