The Australian prime minister has banned the national cricket team from visiting Zimbabwe.
John Howard said: “The government, through the foreign minister, has written to the organisation of Cricket Australia instructing that the tour not go ahead.”
The World Cup-champion Australians were scheduled to play three one-day matches in Zimbabwe in September.
They would have spent less than two weeks in the country led by President Robert Mugabe, who has been widely criticised for human rights abuses.
Cricket Australia said it might try to play the three matches at a neutral venue.
“We accept that the Australian government has the responsibility for making decisions about our nation’s international relationships,” chief executive officer James Sutherland said.
“Given our commitment to help Zimbabwe cricket develop, we will now explore the possibility of playing the three ODIs (one-day internationals) we are due to play against Zimbabwe in September at a neutral venue outside Zimbabwe.”
A spokesman for Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Australia, Stephen Chiketa, said Chiketa would not be available to comment on the Australian decision until tomorrow.
On Friday, Chiketa said cancellation of the tour would hurt children in his country.
“You have young players in Zimbabwe who want to emulate great cricket players in Australia,” Chiketa told Australia’s Seven television network. “Take your politics somewhere else.”
Howard said Mugabe was behaving “like the Gestapo” towards his political opponents.
“The living standards in the country are probably the lowest of any in the world, you have an absolutely unbelievable rate of inflation,” Howard said. “I have no doubt that if this tour goes ahead it will be an enormous boost to this grubby dictator.”
He said the legal basis of the government’s decision was solid.
“We do have power over people’s passports,” he said. “We have made our position very clear.”
Howard also said it was better for the Australian government to take the blame for the ban, and not cricket authorities.
He said: “It’s pretty obvious to me that the players and the body wanted to act in conformity with public opinion but in the end, not surprisingly, they wanted a situation where the decision was taken by the government and not the players.
“I don’t think it’s fair to leave a foreign policy decision of this magnitude on the shoulders of young sportsmen. It’s much better, in the end, for the government to take the rap.”
Australian skipper Ricky Ponting said in a statement he was “comfortable” with the government decision.
“As captain of Australia I’ve never had a problem playing against international cricketers from Zimbabwe,” Ponting said. “As a playing group the Australian squad understands its responsibility to spread the word of cricket throughout the world ….”
The Australian government said on Friday it was investigating legal ways to cancel the tour without the team incurring a AUD$2m fine from international cricket authorities.
In August 2005, International Cricket Council chief executive Malcolm Speed said that the ICC’s policy was that international matches proceed unless blocked by a government ban.
“For the past three years at least, we’ve been asked that players be allowed not to comply with their agreements with Zimbabwe, or that cricket not be played in Zimbabwe,” Speed said in 2005.
“ICC position has been consistent: we say to governments that we don’t take decisions based on political judgments – we expect governments to do that.”
Mugabe, 83, has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence from Britain in 1980.
He has been criticised by the West and domestic opponents for repression, corruption, acute food shortages and gross economic mismanagement that has driven inflation above 2,000 percent – the highest in the world.
Mugabe has acknowledged that police used violent methods against opposition supporters.
Critics say Mugabe drove the agriculture-based economy into ruin since the government violently seized white-owned commercial farms in 2000 as part of a programme to redistribute land to poor blacks.