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Proposed telecoms interception laws in Zimbabwe have created a furore with the government apparently awarding itself unlimited snooping powers.

The Interception of Communications Bill, the topic of hearings before the African country's Parliament on Wednesday, allows for email and phone interception warrants against targeted individuals that might be extended indefinitely, under the control of politicians and with little or no judicial oversight.

The bill also calls for the establishment of a monitoring centre, reportedly outfitted with bugging equipment supplied by China. Telecoms providers would be obliged to install snooping equipment onto their networks, linked to the proposed monitoring centre. ISPs, not the Zimbabwean government, would be forced to foot the bill.

The government says its proposals are needed for national security, in the fight against crime, and in line with measures introduced by other countries. Zimbabwean phone calls are already monitored, the BBC reports, so the bill essentially extends existing provisions for the internet age.

President Robert Mugabe's government has an abysmal human rights record, with laws that curtail movement and opposition against his regime. Criticism of the country's proposed telecoms interception laws has focused on the lack of judicial oversight. Earlier communications laws, which also lacked court oversight, were overturned by a Zimbabwean High Court in 2004 as unconstitutional.

"An aggrieved person is given a right to appeal to the minister (of Transport and Communications), who is neither independent nor impartial. He authorises the interception and monitoring in the first place," Wilbert Mandinde, legal officer of the Media Institute for Southern Africa in Zimbabwe, told the BBC.

Opposition parties joined in this criticism. "It seems to give carte blanche - the minister is the judge and the jury, it violates the whole concept of the separation of powers," said Jessie Majome, a legal advisor for opposition Movement for Democratic Change. ®

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