LEAD: Australian gov't bans tour of Zimbabwe by national cricket team.
(EDS: UPDATING WITH ICC'S REACTION, FOREIGN MINISTER'S COMMENTS)
The Australian government on Sunday banned the national cricket team from touring Zimbabwe, which Australia and other Western countries accuse of political repression and human rights abuses under President Robert Mugabe.
''The Australian government has directed Cricket Australia not to proceed with the Australian cricket team's tour to Zimbabwe planned for September this year,'' the government said in a statement issued by Prime Minister John Howard's office.
''In less extreme circumstances, the government would not wish to penalize cricket lovers in Zimbabwe or Australia. However, a tour by the World Cup champions to Zimbabwe would inevitably be used as propaganda by this appalling regime,'' the statement said.
The team, which has won the last three Cricket World Cups, was scheduled to play Zimbabwe in that country this year as part of its obligations under a touring agreement among members of the International Cricket Commission.
Under Mugabe, the statement said ''ordinary Zimbabweans have borne the brunt of famine and near-total economic collapse brought on by the regime's destructive and callous policies.''
''President Mugabe has trashed Zimbabwean democracy, enriched himself and his cronies, subverted the rule of law and presided over the systematic and brutal oppression of that country's civil society and political opposition,'' it said.
ICC Chief Executive Malcolm Speed said Cricket Australia would not have to pay a minimum US$2 million cancellation fee to the Zimbabwe Cricket Board because the Australian government had made the decision to ban the team from traveling to Zimbabwe.
ICC rules state that in cases of ''acceptable non-compliance,'' such as government's refusal to grant consent, a member can be excused from its contractual obligation to visit or host another member.
''In this instance, it appears the Australian government has acted in this way,'' Speed said.
New Zealand's cricket association was similarly spared sanctions after its government refused in 2005 to grant permission for the Zimbabwe cricket team to enter and play matches in New Zealand.
The Australian government statement criticized the ICC for declining to change its rules to allow teams themselves to forfeit tours to countries where serious human rights abuses are occurring.
''While normally sport and politics should not be mixed, the international community cannot be blind to the tragedy unfolding in Zimbabwe. The appalling situation in Zimbabwe makes it a clear exception that requires exceptional measures,'' it said.
Malcolm called the Australian government decision ''unfortunate for Zimbabwe's cricketers and supporters, all of whom need exposure to top-quality cricket in order to develop as players and to encourage future generations to take up the sport.''
He suggested the Australian-Zimbabwe matches take place ''in a neutral venue'' instead of not at all -- an idea that Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland expressed support for.
''We are obliged to do what we can to help Zimbabwe cricketers and we could help them by playing somewhere else,'' Sutherland was quoted as saying by the Australian Associated Press.
But Foreign Minister Alexander Downer expressed reservations about playing against Zimbabwe at all, even on neutral territory.
''I don't think that is very likely to happen as I doubt very much the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, or for that matter the Zimbabwe government, which no doubt runs the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, would allow Zimbabwe to be humiliated to the extent they accept that the international community refuses to come to their country,'' he said.