(Johannesburg) - Increasing violence in Zimbabwe during community meetings leading up to a constitutional referendum and new arrests of civil society activists highlight the lack of progress in ending human rights abuses and implementing urgently needed human rights reforms, Human Rights Watch said today.
The national unity government began a series of community outreach meetings in June called the Constitutional Outreach Program to elicit popular views on a new constitution. The meetings have been marked by increasing violence and intimidation, mainly by supporters of Zimbabwe's African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and war veterans allied to ZANU-PF, the former sole ruling party. In the past few days, the violence has worsened, as the outreach meetings have moved to the capital, Harare, and the city of Bulawayo. Because of the violence, 13 meetings in Harare were suspended.
"ZANU-PF supporters and their allies continue to commit abuses with impunity, and the police remain partisan," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government of Zimbabwe needs to put a halt to the attacks and allow the constitutional outreach to proceed without violence."
Zimbabwe's Global Political Agreement brought ZANU-PF and the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) together two years ago into a unity government. The agreement calls for putting a draft constitution to a referendum. If the constitution is accepted, new elections would bring this interim government to an end. A Constitutional Select Committee was set up to oversee the process, and up to 70 outreach teams have been dispatched around the country to conduct the outreach program.
Human Rights Watch urged the government to take immediate steps to end abuses and create the necessary constitutional and electoral framework to ensure free, fair, and credible elections, as envisaged in the Global Political Agreement. The government should also repeal or amend all repressive legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which severely limits rights to demonstrate. The police have loosely interpreted certain provisions of the POSA and other laws to justify arbitrary arrests of civil society activists. The government should also respect and uphold the recent human rights additions to the current constitution, particularly those obliging state officials to respect and uphold the rule of law and guaranteeing free and unfettered political participation.
Human Rights Watch has received reports of violence in Harare, Bulawayo, Masvingo, Mashonaland West, and Mashonaland East during the outreach process. The attacks were reportedly perpetrated by ZANU-PF officials and supporters against villagers, perceived supporters of the MDC, and civil society activists who are monitoring the process.
On September 18 in Greystone Park, Harare, a group of war veterans, and ZANU-PF youths reportedly barred white residents from participating in the outreach program, contending that the white residents were not Zimbabweans. One resident in the area was assaulted when he tried to intervene on behalf of the white residents.
The following day in Mbare, Harare, ZANU-PF supporters attacked MDC supporters and prevented them from attending an outreach meeting, which ended when the violence broke out. ZANU-PF supporters and uniformed police assaulted 11 residents and MDC supporters from Mbare with blunt objects as they left the meeting. One resident, Chrispen Mandizvidza, died from his injuries on September 22. Medical reports indicated that he died as a result of complications from a ruptured bowel, which he sustained after being hit in the abdomen with blunt weapons.
Human Rights Watch received similar reports of violence and intimidation by ZANU-PF supporters and war veterans in the Harare suburbs of Budiriro, Chisipite, Glen View, and Glen Norah.
In an unrelated incident, 83 men and women from the group Women of Zimbabwe Arise were arrested in Harare on September 20 as they demonstrated against the lack of professionalism by the Zimbabwe police. The group was detained at the Harare Central Police Station for two days. On September 22, they were taken to appear at the Harare Magistrates Court to answer charges of criminal nuisance under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and were later released on bail.
The perpetrators of this violence should be brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said, and the activists who were detained after they reported ZANU-PF attacks should have the charges against them dropped.
"This violence and intimidation do not bode well for the referendum and elections that could be held next year," Peligal said. "Without rights reforms and accountability for continuing abuses, the kind of violence that plagued the 2008 elections is likely to happen again."