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Rights Report: Zimbabwe Abuses Could Constitute Crimes Against Humanity

A study by human rights groups in southern Africa say torture and other abuses in Zimbabwe have been so widespread and systematic that they could be considered crimes against humanity. And it says these abuses continue, causing a major blemish on the four month-old power-sharing government.

The director of the Harare-based Research and Advocacy Unit, Tony Reeler, says a review of investigations by numerous rights groups shows that torture and gross human rights violations in Zimbabwe have been perpetrated for decades on what he calls an epidemic scale.

He says the abuses have been widespread and systematic which fulfills a definition of crimes against humanity.

He adds that victims have identified senior Zimbabwean officials as being behind the violence. And they have testified that torture centers were set up in government-owned buildings such as schools and clinics.

He says this indicates that, at the very least, the state condoned the abuse. "You can be accused of crimes against humanity in two ways. One is that you are actively involved in the commission of those things. The second is that you do not take active steps to prevent it. Omission is also very important," he said.

Reeler's report was based on investigations by more than one dozen human rights groups which, he says, used different methods but came to the same basic conclusions.

His report says human rights abuses occurred for decades in Zimbabwe but that they worsened after the year 2000 and peaked during the disputed elections last year.

In these elections, the former-opposition Movement for Democratic Change defeated President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party in the parliamentary vote.

In the presidential vote, Mr. Mugabe came in second to MDC leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai but he won the run-off election after Mr. Tsvangirai withdrew citing violence against his supporters.

Mr. Mugabe's government vehemently denies the reports of human rights abuses saying they are lies aimed at de-stabilizing the regime. It notes that some ZANU-PF supporters have also been victimized.

Reeler says that in addition to torture, beatings and intimidation, a new form of abuse has emerged. "Some of the reports have made this point, that there is a new kind of violation floating around. And this is a kind of psychological torture. What you do is you smash their home. You steal their goods. You eat their cattle and their goats and you impoverish them. That's a way of keeping people compliant," he said.

Reeler's report says the abuses have declined since the power sharing government was installed with Mr. Mugabe as president and Mr. Tsvangirai as prime minister. But he says the abuses continue and that is a major blot (stain) on the new government.

Dozens of MDC and human rights activists have been arrested in recent months on charges of plotting to overthrow the state. Many of them have been released on bail but others remain missing.

The head of Amnesty International (Irene Khan) Friday was heavily criticized in the state controlled media after she said, during a visit to the country, that human rights violations continue in Zimbabwe.

A researcher with South Africa's Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Glen Mpani, said a major impediment to peace and reconciliation is the culture of impunity that has evolved. "Zimbabwe has gone through processes of announcing national union and reconciliation in the past and these processes have all been geared towards providing impunity and allowing perpetrators to go scot-free," he said.

Reeler says peace can only be brought about by placing security structures under complete civilian control. Reconciliation can only come by creating mechanisms for healing. And healing can only come about through justice.