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Controversy Over Observers May Mar Zimbabwe's Vote - 2002-03-06

Independent civic groups in Zimbabwe say they have not been able to get most of their election monitors accredited for the presidential balloting set to begin Saturday. It could mean serious problems for the integrity of the poll.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network says it has applied to have more than 12,000 election observers accredited for Saturday and Sunday's presidential poll. But the group says so far, only about 300 have actually been cleared to monitor the voting.

Officials from the government's Electoral Supervisory Commission on Wednesday offered no real reasons why so few domestic observers have been cleared. They blame it on logistical problems and say it is not intentional.

The issue is not limited to independent civic groups. Political parties are also entitled to have polling agents monitor the voting. But the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), says its efforts to train polling agents around the country have been repeatedly disrupted by the police or by militants from the ruling ZANU-PF party.

A representative of the MDC election team spoke to VOA about the matter on condition of anonymity.

"It's been a very, very, very serious problem. It's frightening the extent to which our efforts at training our polling agents thoroughly and well have been just barred. We've ended up having to train in small, small groups a few people in each constituency, and just pray they will be able to move around almost one by one to the people in their area and say look, these are the forms, this is what we need to do, this is why we need to do it. One by one by one," the representative said.

In the latest incidents, the party said a polling agent's two teenage daughters were kidnapped from their home Wednesday. In another area on the same day, 17 MDC polling agents were arrested north of Harare on their way home from a training session in the town of Bindura.

It is not the first time that has happened. VOA talked to roughly 20 MDC polling agents who spent four days in jail last week without being charged with any crime. They were part of a group of 37 arrested last Thursday at a training session for polling agents.

Edreat Mhunza said the police swooped down on their meeting, began arresting everyone in sight, accusing them of political violence.

"They brought about three trucks of police force support unit, and they just pounced on us, on our session and when they even searched us, they found nothing in the name of weapon. Our weapons we had were ball-point [pens] and papers, which were for training our polling agents. We were rounded up, put in a truck and driven to Harare central police station," Mr. Mhunza said.

The detainees said the police told their relatives they were accused of murder and other types of political violence. But none of them ever went before a magistrate to face charges.

The MDC appointed a lawyer for the 37 detained polling agents, but he was not able to meet with or even identify his clients until shortly before their release on Monday. The lawyer, Simbarashe Muzenda, said the police were trying to come up with something to charge them with, and had to release them for lack of evidence. He called it harassment, and he said it has happened before.

"MDC activists have been arrested and have had to be released without being charged. There has been a whole plethora of cases where MDC activists, MDC youth, even MDC leaders have been arrested and just been released like that. So this is why I have a strong feeling that this was a case of harassment," he said.

Although the violence charges have been abandoned, Mr. Muzenda said the police have threatened to charge his clients with lesser offenses.

One detainee, a large 57-year-old woman named Tariro Zinyeka, said she was just at the MDC office visiting her daughter. She was using the toilet when the police stormed in and arrested her. She has been accused of stoning a car.

Mrs. Zinyeka and others in the room giggle at the idea that the police thought she might be capable of that.

Another detainee was a young mother with a one-month-old baby. Her husband brought the child to stay with her in jail so she could breast-feed. But she had no water to wash diapers.

Many of the polling agents detained in Harare are originally from the town of Bindura, about 100 kilometers northwest of the capital. They say they were driven out of their homes last year and had to take refuge in Harare.

But despite the danger, Simon Fende and other detained polling agents said they intend to go back to monitor the vote. "We have no option. We need to go to Bindura and make sure we win this election because our life depends on winning this election. So we will make sure we will go back to Bindura and monitor this election so that there will be no rigging," he said.

The MDC election official admits it is has been very hard for the party to work in certain areas, including Bindura. The town and the surrounding province, Mashonaland Central, is a hotbed of ZANU-PF activity.

"Areas like Bindura and Mashonaland Central are our toughest, hardest areas. So we've dramatically increased the number of polling agents that we've registered in those areas exactly for this reason. Because unfortunately the reality is many of these people won't be able to come to their polling stations. So we've tried to give a polling station extra individuals to make up for those that won't be able to make it," he said.

To add to those concerns, the law requires parties to publish the names of their polling agents at least three days before the voting starts. The MDC fears making that kind of information public could endanger their agents even more. But they have complied with the law because they fear their agents will be turned away from the polls if they do not.

ZANU-PF, on the other hand, had not yet published the names of its polling agents in any of the major newspapers by Wednesday.