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Human Rights Groups Say Political Violence Worsening In Zimbabwe - 2002-01-17


A human-rights group in Zimbabwe says more than 4,000 people in the country were the victims of political violence last year, almost all of them supporters of opposition parties. A new report has been released as the government reconsiders a proposed law dealing with freedom of speech and the press.

The Human Rights Forum, a coalition of more than a dozen human and political rights agencies in Zimbabwe, says at least 48 people were killed in political violence in 2001, of which 45 were officials or supporters of opposition parties. Two of the victims were beheaded. Another 2,400 people were tortured, says the forum.

The government has made no direct comment on the report, but has repeatedly blamed the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) for almost all incidents of violence.

The report does not discuss developments this year, but Tony Reeler, a director of the Human Rights Forum, says the violence seems worse than last year.

Mr. Reeler says the situation has been aggravated by the involvement of newly trained youth militia of the ruling ZANU-PF party. The government denies that militia forces are responsible. It says members of the militia, who are clad in military-style uniforms, are being trained in what officials term "Zimbabwe customs and values."

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa has temporarily withdrawn the proposed Access to Information law that has been widely criticized for suppressing freedom of speech and the press.

Mr. Chinamasa told parliament that following discussions with what he called "objective-minded international media" a number of changes are being made to the bill, but the minister did not say what these are.

Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, who is responsible for drawing up the bill, is due to report when parliament meets next week.

Under the bill, journalists in Zimbabwe have to be citizens of the country and have to be licensed by the government, while criticism of the government and the president is severely limited. Offenders face up to two-years in jail.

At a meeting of Southern African heads of state in Blantyre, Malawi this week, President Robert Mugabe pledged that there will be no restrictions on journalists covering Zimbabwe's presidential elections, due to be held March 9 and 10. He said that promise applies to Zimbabwean journalists as well as to journalists from outside the country.

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