President Joachim Chissano
Chair, Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation
Mozambique

President Bakili Muluzi
Chair, Southern African Development Community
Malawi

President Thabo Mbeki
South Africa

President Festus Mogae
Botswana

 

Your Excellencies:

I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch to express our concern at the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe and to ask that you intervene urgently and at the highest level on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

For the last two years, there has been an escalation of political violence in Zimbabwe, largely instigated or carried out by supporters of the ruling party, ZANU-PF, against leaders and supporters of opposition parties, in particular the newly formed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). This violence has been accompanied by increasing harassment of independent critics of government, including journalists. The government has also undermined the independence of the judiciary, forcing several resignations including that of the chief justice. Acquisitions of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution have been accompanied by significant violence against their owners and farm workers, and intimidation and threats against black Zimbabweans living on surrounding communal land. In many cases, police have stood by and taken no action to protect those who have been the victims of violence.

In the last two weeks, there has been a significant escalation of the threats to members of the MDC. According to information received by Human Rights Watch, around eighteen people associated with the MDC are currently in detention in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city. Among them are security guards, secretaries, and organizers for the party in the Bulawayo area. In addition, MDC member of parliament for Lobengula-Magwegwe and member of the MDC's national executive committee Fletcher Dlamini-Ncube was arrested on November 16, and the MP for Bulilima-Mangwe North, Moses Ndlovu, was arrested on Monday November 19. Both are still in custody. On Thursday November 15, David Coltart, a prominent human rights lawyer and MDC MP from Bulawayo, was detained for several hours at the airport outside the capital, Harare. The MDC has had great difficulty in obtaining access for lawyers to those arrested, in some cases requiring court orders to do so. Some of those in custody are reported to have been tortured.

Both Fletcher Ncube and Moses Ndlovu have been charged with murder in connection with the abduction and killing of Cain Nkala, a leading veteran of Zimbabwe's liberation war and government party supporter. Several of the others arrested have also been charged with murder, and others with offenses under the Law and Order Maintenance Act. The MDC has denied responsibility for the abduction and murder of Nkala, who was linked by police to the murder last year of an MDC official, Patrick Nabanyama. Nkala was reported as saying that he would name the real killers of Nabanyama, leading to speculation by the opposition and in the media that Nkala may have been killed by members of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Zimbabwe's security police. This Sunday, November 18, President Robert Mugabe also publicly singled out three white MDC members whom he declared were "terrorists"-MPs David Coltart and Michael Auret, both also long-standing and internationally respected human rights defenders, and Simon Spooner, Coltart's campaign manager during the parliamentary elections of 2000 who is among those now in custody charged with murder.

Last Friday, a hundred or more supporters of ZANU-PF rioted in Bulawayo, beating bystanders and forcing the closure of shops. They were escorted by police in six or seven riot vehicles. The Bulawayo office of the MDC was invaded, as the police stood by, and burnt down with a petrol bomb. The fire brigade who came to assist was stoned by the ZANU-PF supporters. In retaliation, some MDC supporters then burnt down a building belonging to a prominent ZANU-PF politician. Supporters of ZANU-PF have also attacked and set fire to the homes of leading MDC members in Bulawayo. The MDC headquarters in Harare were twice surrounded by a mob of war veterans and other government supporters the previous weekend.

There are also threats to nongovernmental organizations working in Zimbabwe, both on human rights and humanitarian issues. A number of human rights activists and members of other groups critical of the government, including the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), have received threats or have been assaulted by police, war veterans or supporters of ZANU-PF. An NCA demonstration on Wednesday November 21 intended to be a march on parliament was prevented from going ahead by police, and thirty-five people arrested. Four NCA members were arrested the day before by police to whom they had tried to report assaults by ZANU-PF supporters. The government has stated that humanitarian organizations will be banned from distributing food in rural areas, where there is an acute need for assistance, claiming that aid distribution would be used as an excuse to campaign for the opposition party.

There are serious concerns about the conduct of next year's presidential elections. Proposed new electoral regulations will reportedly place significant difficulties in the way of registering to vote, by requiring voters to produce passports and bills to prove that they have lived in their constituencies for the last twelve months. Postal votes will be limited to diplomatic staff and soldiers serving outside Zimbabwe, preventing other overseas Zimbabweans from casting a ballot. The regulations have not yet been made public, except through reports in the government-owned newspaper, the Herald. The Zimbabwean government has refused to accept election observers from international organizations, including the European Union, and has stated that the only local monitors allowed will be civil servants. NGOs have been forbidden from carrying out voter education. A Public Order and Security Bill has also been mooted in the Herald, which will reportedly dramatically strengthen the powers that the government already holds under the Law and Order Maintenance Act, including denying bail to anyone charged with an offense under the new bill.

The government has also issued new regulations to allow the confiscation of commercial farmland without the right to appeal the decision to the courts, another measure that undermines the rule of law.

In August 2001, in the communiqué following the Blantyre summit of SADC, heads of government expressed their concern at the effect of the economic situation in Zimbabwe on the region. The summit appointed a task force comprising Mozambique, South Africa, and Botswana to work with the Zimbabwe government on the economic and political issues affecting Zimbabwe. Since then, SADC leaders have met with Mugabe to discuss the land crisis and other issues. Now is the time to build on these steps by speaking out strongly at the deteriorating human rights conditions in Zimbabwe, before more lives are lost and the whole region is affected.

Human Rights Watch urges SADC to condemn publicly the current human rights violations in Zimbabwe. In particular, we urge you to call on President Mugabe:

  • To ensure that the police act impartially to protect all Zimbabwean citizens from violence and that allegations of police complicity in violence, torture or other abuse are impartially investigated and those responsible brought to justice;
  • To end harassment of members of opposition political parties, in particular the MDC, and of human rights and other organizations of civil society;
  • To guarantee the constitutional rights of MDC members and other Zimbabweans held in custody;
  • To abandon the reported Public Order and Security Bill and new electoral regulations, and other legislation that undermines the rule of law and the rights enshrined in Zimbabwe's constitution;
  • To allow international and national monitors to observe the 2002 presidential elections and to carry out voter education freely before they are held.
  • To withdraw the blanket allegations of "terrorism" made against David Coltart, Michael Auret, and Simon Spooner. The criminal justice system should be allowed to operate without political interference.

Sincerely,

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director of the Africa Division
Human Rights Watch

cc: SADC secretariat, Gaborone