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Rights Group Sounds Alarm over Zimbabwe Pre-Election Abuses

  • Anita Powell

Zimbabwean police patrol the streets of the capital Harare, March 1, 2011.

Zimbabwean police patrol the streets of the capital Harare, March 1, 2011.

Human Rights Watch said Zimbabwean security forces loyal to President Robert Mugabe have been beating, intimidating and abusing people they see as critical of the government ahead of a presidential vote planned for July. The report from the New York-based watchdog comes ahead of a special summit intended to iron out problems related to the election.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the abuse of critics by police officers and soldiers appears to be intensifying ahead of a presidential vote in Zimbabwe slated for July.

The rights watchdog says researchers have found recent instances of arrests, beatings and intimidation of Zimbabweans thought to support the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. That former opposition party became part of a shaky coalition ordered by mediators after the violent 2008 elections.

Officials from President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party did not answer repeated calls seeking comment. But the administration has previously denied and dismissed similar allegations.

Zimbabwe's Constitutional Court said just days ago that Mugabe must hold elections by July 31. The president has repeatedly said he wants to end the coalition. But Tsvangirai has said it is not possible to implement all of the needed electoral and democratic reforms before the proposed election date.

Human Rights Watch is calling on the government to enact urgent reforms to rein in the security forces. But with the election less than two months away, that too may be difficult. The Southern African Development community has called for a special summit Sunday to address the Zimbabwe vote.

Dewa Mavhinga, a senior researcher for Zimbabwe and Southern Africa with the Africa division at Human Rights Watch, said it’s important that the international community apply pressure before the poll to ensure a level playing field for all candidates.

“We insist that in a multiparty democracy, a human-rights respecting environment should have security forces being politically neutral and not taking any side," said Mavhinga. "Otherwise, there would be no point of having elections when the army says they will not respect the outcome of an election if it does not favor ZANU-PF.”

Tiseke Kasambala, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the rights group did not find any instances of abuses by MDC loyalists, only by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF members. But, she said, that doesn’t mean the rights group wants Zimbabweans to vote against Mugabe.

“Human Rights Watch obviously does not have any position in terms of who wins elections," she said. "However, what we are saying is that the human rights environment in Zimbabwe, and the electoral environment, are very much skewed towards ZANU-PF and President Mugabe. And what we’re also arguing is that the role of the security forces in electoral affairs in the country is unlikely to make for free, fair, or credible elections.”

Mugabe, who is 89, has said he intends to run for president again. In some ways, the future of ZImbabwe is difficult to imagine without him.

After all, he is the only post-independence leader Zimbabwe has ever had.