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Rights Group Accuses Zimbabwe of Establishing Torture Camps - 2002-03-05

Zimbabwean human rights groups say members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change are being systematically tortured by ruling-party militants. The group says about 200 torture camps have been established during the past eight months.

It is nearly impossible for foreign journalists or election observers to gain access to the alleged torture camps. By day, they are schools, shops, offices or restaurants. But by night, the Human Rights Forum says they become centers for pain, run by the militant youth brigade of the ruling party, ZANU-PF.

ZANU-PF denies that its party is involved in any type of systematic torture. The state-owned newspapers have tried to blame the violence on a "third force", which the party says is trying to discredit it.

VOA spoke with two victims who say they have been tied up and beaten in the ZANU-PF office in the town of Chitungwiza, not far from Harare. Neither man wanted to use his real name for fear of reprisals.

One man, whom we will call John, says he was abducted on his way home from church Sunday. "They tied me up and gagged me. Then they started beating the bottoms of my feet. They made me drink urine," he said.

After a severe beating, his assailants left him unattended. John says he managed to escape by crawling to a nearby house. The family living there refused to let him stay the night because they were afraid he would die there. He slept in an open field and then got help from the MDC the next day.

John still bears visible signs of his beating. His right eye is nearly swollen shut, and he has cuts and bruises on his back and arms. As he speaks, he picks at an open wound on his right forearm. It looks like a cigarette burn.

The other victim, whom we will call Frank, tells a similar story about his abduction last week. He says a group of 18 men and nine women beat him with iron bars, wooden planks, and chunks of firewood from the stove. "When they abducted me and took me to their office, you know the feeling of being among people who just want to kill? Who just do not care for someone's life? I thought I was being killed," he said.

Frank, too, still bears a physical scar from his experience - a large gash on his left shoulder where he says he was hit with an iron bar.

Frank and John say they were singled out because they are MDC supporters. Frank is the party youth director in Chitungwiza, and John was identified as having attended an MDC rally.

Both men spoke to VOA just after receiving medical treatment from a group called Amani Trust, which is part of the Human Rights Forum.

Amani Trust medical director Dr. Francis Lovemore says in the past two weeks, doctors affiliated with the group have treated between five and 20 new torture cases every day. "As far as we know, most of them that are selected are activists within the party, although we have dealt with a few clients who have had no political affiliation whatsoever," she said. "And we have also dealt with a few clients who have been beaten by their own parties. That is the ruling party beating their own people who they do not think are performing as well as they should be."

The Human Rights Forum says political violence in Zimbabwe has become more organized during the past two years. Dr. Lovemore says when it first started, ahead of parliamentary elections in the year 2000, it consisted mainly of roving gangs of ruling-party militants.

She says the camps began to emerge about eight months ago, as the nation geared up for the presidential elections scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

One also has to remember that a lot of the torture centers that have been used are going to be used as polling stations. So the people who have been in a torture center are now going to have to vote in a polling station that was previously used for violence. And a number of the people who have been perpetrating the violence are election officers. So they have got a double psychological hurdle to overcome before they can vote.

But John says his experience has made him even more determined to support the MDC. Frank, too, will continue to support the party, but he says he will be keeping a lower profile than he did before.

John admits that he is concerned about his family. He has not spoken to his wife since his abduction. "I am worried about the safety of my family, because when I left, when I was beaten, the ZANU-PF militias were patrolling the area around our home," he said. "So I think my family's lives are also in danger."

Both men have been staying with friends since their assault. They are afraid to return home, afraid to return to their jobs.

And, they say, there are many other people like them in Chitungwiza. Frank says he knows people who have been beaten much more severely than they were.

The Human Rights Forum says the level of violence in Zimbabwe appears to be increasing, and the perpetrators are becoming more brutal. It says more people are requiring hospitalization and surgery after their beatings.

It is not clear how many people have actually been affected. The Human Rights Forum says roughly 30 people have been killed since the beginning of the year. Amani Trust provided medical care for more than 70 people in January. But the group's leaders say countless others are too afraid to seek their help.