HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Keith Charumbira had just stepped off a minivan taxi in southwest Harare three weeks ago, fresh from a Friday evening gathering of civic advocates in Zimbabwe's capital city, when he saw the knot of policemen walking toward him.
It was too late to flee.
"They started asking questions," Charumbira said: "`Why are you active in an opposition party that is against the needs of the government? Don't you know you are part of a leadership that is leading to violence?' "
The officers rifled through his pockets, Charumbira said, and took his cash, amounting to about $60. Then, for the next 20 minutes, they beat him.
"They used batons," he said. "My head, my chest, on my legs. I had a head injury." When the officers tried to tie him up with his own shirt, Charumbira said, he managed to slip out and run away, fleeing first to a relative's home, then to a Harare hospital. He spent six days there recovering.
There is nothing subtle about the reaction of President Robert G. Mugabe's government to the latest surge of political unrest in Zimbabwe. By the scores - by the hundreds, some opposition figures say - people critical of Mugabe's rule are being cornered on sidewalks, hauled to jails or simply abducted from their homes in early morning raids, and then savagely beaten.
The main faction of the leading opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change, says that at least 500 of its members have been attacked in the past month. The number of attacks on civic advocates and other opposition figures is less clear but appears substantial.
Mugabe's government appears to have responded to recent opposition with a crackdown that strikes some here as an act of paranoia, if not desperation.
Mugabe was widely quoted last month as saying that "the police have a right to bash" protesters who resist them, and added that the main leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, deserved the beating he received March 11, leaving him hospitalized with a head wound and possible skull fracture.
An international furor erupted this week after The Herald, a government-controlled newspaper that frequently speaks for officials in power, suggested that one British diplomat it accused of aiding opposition figures might return to London "in a body bag, like some of her colleagues from Iraq and Afghanistan."
"This is not a regime that is ensconced in the affections of the people," Iden Wetherell, an editor of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent, said in his downtown offices this week. "There's a real fear of popular mobilization. Look at the pattern of beating people up, of declaring Harare a zone where no demonstrations can be held, of breaking up news conferences. It's clearly an attempt to prevent the leadership of the opposition from communicating with its members."
Civic advocates, opposition figures and human-rights advocates call this a low-intensity war on Mugabe's critics that represents a new chapter in the effort to stifle dissent.
"These abductions cannot happen without the knowledge of senior military chiefs, senior police chiefs and senior intelligence chiefs," said Selvan Chetty of the Solidarity Peace Trust, a human-rights group.