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Amnesty International Criticizes Restrictions Before Zimbabwe Elections


As Zimbabweans prepare to vote in national elections March 29, the human rights group Amnesty International has strongly criticized the ruling party's restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly. Tendai Maphosa has details from London.

Amnesty International says levels of violence are currently lower than before previous elections in Zimbabwe. But the group is criticizing restrictions and intimidation of voters and says both are unacceptable.

Amnesty's Simeon Mawanza was recently in Zimbabwe.

"The levels of violence are significantly very low as well as that the opposition political parties have had some degree of access to the previously no-go areas for opposition activists," said Mawanza. "But having said that, we witnessed the existence of low levels of intimidation and harassment particularly in rural areas."

Mawanza says Amnesty also has reports of arrests of opposition-party campaign workers. He says there are clear cases of police bias in favor of President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.

"They [the police] impose unnecessary restrictions," he said. "We did not receive any information that they had also equally been imposed on the ruling ZANU-PF and its main candidate."

Amnesty says recent statements by the police commissioner, the head of prison services, and the army commander that they would not recognize an opposition victory, have added to the population's anxiety.

Mawanza says while the opposition has received somewhat more coverage in the state-controlled media, most of the coverage has been negative.

Zimbabwe's government has a monopoly on the electronic media, and there is no independent daily newspaper in the country. Mawanza says this makes it difficult for the opposition to get its message out to the electorate.

He adds the environment in Zimbabwe is cause for concern.

"Our feeling was that Zimbabwe still falls way below international standards in terms of protecting very important rights to do with an election process which are freedom of expression, association, and assembly," said Mawanza. "We wish to register that we have reservations on protection of fundamental rights leading up to the elections."

Speaking to the French news agency AFP, a Zimbabwean police spokesman dismissed the allegations as a Western ploy to discredit the elections. He said everyone is campaigning freely.

Zimbabweans go to the polls Saturday against the backdrop of the highest inflation rate in the world, high unemployment, and chronic shortages of food, fuel and electricity. They will be voting for president, members of parliament, senators and for local government officials.

Critics of Mr. Mugabe, who has been in power since independence in 1980, blame him for the country's crisis. He blames the problems on sanctions imposed by former colonial power, Britain.

Mr. Mugabe's challengers in the presidential election are Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change and former finance minister Simba Makoni, runing as an independent.

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