Human Rights Watch today called on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to speak out strongly on the need to ensure that the rule of law is respected in Zimbabwe.

“The situation in Zimbabwe seems to be deteriorating daily,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “President Mugabe must take urgent steps to restore the rule of law and end harassment of Zimbabweans who peacefully express their opposition to his government.”

In a letter to the president of Malawi, which is currently the chair of SADC, and the presidents of South Africa, Mozambique, and Botswana, which are members of a SADC “troika” responsible for monitoring the situation in Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch urged the regional body to call on the Zimbabwean government to bring its supporters under control and ensure that the police act impartially to restore order.

At least eighteen members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are currently in custody, charged with offenses including murder, in connection with the abduction and murder of a leading veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation war and government party supporter, Cain Nkala. 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.

“It seems this killing is being used as an excuse to crackdown on the opposition,” said Takirambudde. “While the criminal law must take its course, state structures should not be used for political purposes.”

Police stood by last week as supporters of the ruling party rioted in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, beating bystanders and forcing the closure of shops. The MDC headquarters in Harare were twice surrounded by a mob of people supporting the government the previous weekend.

Political conflict has intensified in Zimbabwe since a referendum in February 2000, when people voted against proposed government amendments to the constitution. Violence increased in the run-up to Parliamentary elections held later in 2000. Presidential elections are scheduled for April 2002. MDC supporters and independent journalists have been subjected to increasing harassment and violence. The government has also undermined the independence of the judiciary, forcing the resignation of the chief justice. Acquisitions of white-owned commercial farms have been accompanied by significant violence against their owners and farm workers and intimidation and threats against black Zimbabweans living on surrounding communal land.