U.N. Special Rapporteur Clement Voule, who returned Friday from a 10-day visit to Zimbabwe, called for dialogue to clear a "toxic environment" in the southern African country.
Voule's trip was the first official visit by an independent human rights expert to Zimbabwe, where for years, rights groups have accused government security forces and ruling party thugs of beating, torturing and killing opponents.
"The toxic environment, I raised this many times in my meetings with government officials," Voule told VOA, adding that there was a "general fear" and "lack of trust" regarding freedom of peaceful assembly.
"In many of my discussions with victims of use of excessive force by police, those victims related that they were targeted because they belonged to the opposition," he said.
The Togolese national called for a dialogue between political leaders and civil society, which he said would result in the "peace, human dignity and economic recovery" of Zimbabwe.
He also said authorities should investigate the spate of kidnappings and disappearances of activists. The opposition blames state security forces for the abductions, though the government denies involvement.
Dr. Peter Magombeyi, the leader of an ongoing doctors strike, was flown to South Africa on Thursday for medical treatment, after allegedly being poisoned during a five-day abduction last week.
Tatenda Mombeyarara, 37, who says he was assaulted while detained in August for helping to organize anti-government protests, welcomes Voule's call for a dialogue, saying it will "help build trust to strengthen institutions."
On Friday, Zimbabwe's justice minister, Ziyambi Ziyambi, told VOA that he had not seen Voule's report.
Voule will present his final report in June 2020 to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
"I understand the political situation which Zimbabwe is going through," he said. "Yes, political competition is important, but the well-being of our community [is] more important. Political leaders need to be brave enough to really sit around the table and discuss ... the future of this country, and I believe that we will have [a] new Zimbabwe which respects human rights."
It remains to be seen how President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government will react to the U.N. Special Rapporteur's report, in which Voule asked for Harare to loosen its grip on anti-government protests, among other things.