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Rights Group Calls for Urgent Action in Zimbabwe

A new report by Human Rights Watch warns that a free and fair runoff election in Zimbabwe on June 27 is not possible unless something is done about the violence against opposition politicians and supporters. The human rights organization calls for the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to immediately deploy election observers to Zimbabwe. Tendai Maphosa has more for VOA in this report from London.

The Human Rights Watch report chronicles violence against members and supporters of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change. It is based on testimony by more than 70 witnesses.

It says that since the March 29 national elections, three dozen people have been killed and 2,000 more have been beaten or tortured.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 3,000 people have fled the violence and are internally displaced, while an unknown number have fled to Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa.

Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Tiseke Kasambala tells VOA twice the number of observers to the March election must be deployed for the June 27 runoff.

"The AU [African Union] and SADC [Southern African Development Community] leaders should have deployed monitors at least over a month before," she said. "But however, if these elections go ahead, the sooner the AU and SADC deploy these elections observers the better and it will deter further violence."

The report says the violence is the ruling ZANU-PF party's response to President Robert Mugabe's narrow loss to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the March 29 presidential election. Tsvangirai won the vote, but not by enough to avoid the runoff.

The report accuses the army, the police, groups of so-called war veterans and ZANU-PF supporters of setting up torture camps, mostly on army bases and organizing re-education meetings where voters are assaulted, mutilated and sometimes killed. It accuses ZANU-PF of a campaign of looting and destruction, slaughtering animals, stealing food and property, and burning down homesteads.

Human Rights Watch's Kasambala says that although Mr. Mugabe's government has used coercion as a campaign tool before, the intensity this time is new.

"We have seen these similar kinds of tactics of repression, brutality beatings before in 2000 and 2002 and that time the government believed that those tactics delivered it the elections," she said. "So now, it lost elections on March 29. The people decided that they wanted change and the government is very, very desperate at the moment and it has reverted to previous tactics to win the election."

The government blames the violence on the opposition.

Kasambala says all the mutilated victims Human Rights Watch interviewed in hospitals were opposition supporters. But she says some MDC supporters admitted burning down the homes of ZANU-PF supporters in retaliation.

Kasambala says the violence and threats have not changed the minds of the voters Human Rights Watch spoke to.

"What many of them said is that this hardened their resolve and they would be going back and that they would be voting for whom they had decided on, and that the beatings that they had suffered would not influence them one single bit," she said.

The government has also made it difficult for the opposition to campaign. Last week, opposition leader Tsvangirai was briefly detained twice. The police banned his rallies, but a High Court judge overturned the ban.

The government has also banned aid agencies from providing food to poor people in rural areas, saying the aid groups are in reality campaigning for the opposition, a charge the charities deny.