The Bush administration is raising the prospect of invoking targeted sanctions against Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and other key government officials if they do not provide for a free and fair election in the country in March.
The discussion of sanctions came as the State Department's chief human rights official, Assistant Secretary Lorne Craner, began meetings in Harare with government officials and opposition politicians on what is described here as a deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe.
An act of Congress signed into law by President Bush last month would subject President Mugabe, senior associates in the government and ruling Zanu-PF party and members of their families to U.S. travel and economic sanctions, if a number of conditions are not met including the holding of a free and fair presidential election in March.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters here that in keeping with the measure, the United States is consulting with other governments to identify those responsible for what he said is escalating government-sponsored political intimidation and violence in Zimbabwe and the harassment of the country's independent press.
He said Mr. Craner was there to express U.S. "dismay" over the state of affairs and to make clear what is expected of the leadership in Harare. "They need to take steps in Zimbabwe to re-assert the rule of law and attention to the norms of a civic society," he said. "The policies that the Mugabe government have taken have led the country to economic and political rack and ruin, and it is time for them to think about the future of their country, the future of their people and focus on democracy. And that would include establishing a system to have free and fair elections, as they're scheduled in March."
The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act approved by overwhelming votes in Congress combines the threat of targeted sanctions against Mr. Mugabe and his associates with incentives including increased U.S. aid and debt relief, in hope of prodding the country toward democracy and an equitable system of land reform.
Spokesman Reeker said the administration had begun consultations with European Union member states, Canada and other countries as required by the U.S. legislation, but said no decisions have been made on the timing or implementation of sanctions.
The EU has also threatened sanctions if the Zimbabwe government refuses to allow foreign observers to monitor the March elections, in which President Mugabe the country's leader for more than two decades, will be seeking another six-year term.