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Rights Groups say New Zimbabwe Government Faces Big Challenge


Zimbabwe's leaders are meeting to choose a new government as part of a power-sharing agreement signed Monday aimed at ending the country's political crisis. But human rights groups say they will press the new unity government to reign in abuses by security forces and punish previous human rights violations. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa Bureau in Johannesburg.

Human rights groups say Zimbabwe's power-sharing agreement is a step forward, but the unity government created by the accord must address human rights abuses if it is to succeed.

Amnesty International's Zimbabwe expert, Simeon Mawanza, says the government of President Robert Mugabe has been violating human rights for years.

"Under international law a country, especially Zimbabwe, would have a responsibility to ensure that victims of human rights violations get justice," he said. "And the unity agreement should not be used as a mechanism to deny victims their right."

The Zimbabwe accord followed months of negotiations between Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change.

Mawanza worries that the unity government created by the agreement will amnesty those who committed human rights abuses.

"During the mediation process, human rights were not so much featured in the dialogue or in the discourse of the mediation process," he said. "And it is time now that human rights become central as part of the investment in the long-term sustainable peace of the country."

Amnesty International would like to see a mechanism set up to investigate human rights violations and look at reparations for their victims.

The opposition says more than 100 activists were killed and thousands beaten or tortured during this year's election campaign.

The opposition won parliamentary elections in March and Mr. Tsvangirai won more votes than Mr. Mugabe in the first round of the presidential vote. But Mr. Mugabe won a runoff election after Mr. Tsvangirai withdrew, citing a campaign of state-sponsored violence.

The Africa Deputy-Director of Human Rights Watch, Carolyn Norris, says the new government should send a signal to the Zimbabwean people and international community by taking some immediate steps.

"And that includes really important things like, for a start, dismantling the torture camps which are still operational in parts of Zimbabwe, releasing all the political prisoners and stopping this whole program of spurious political charges against members of the MDC," she said.

She says many opposition leaders, including six elected members of parliament, were detained in recent weeks on politically motivated charges. And hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was beaten in February while trying to hold a rally, acknowledged the need to address human rights during remarks at the signing ceremony in which he praised ZANU-PF leaders.

"Those colleagues that have made this historic opportunity possible, only through a public acknowledgment of past wrongs can we begin the process of national healing," he said.

Activists acknowledge that Zimbabwe's new leadership faces daunting challenges, including easing food shortages for millions of people and rebuilding the country's decayed infrastructure, health services and education system. But they say reforming the justice system and strengthening the rule of law are also important for the successful reconstruction of the nation.

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