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Governments of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) must look at Zimbabwe's entire electoral process as they assess whether it is free and fair, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The results of the Zimbabwe elections cannot be based merely on observation of the last week before the elections,” said Tiseke Kasambala, researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. “If SADC members fail to take into account abuses in the long run-up to the polls, SADC’s ability to foster democratic change in the region will be compromised.”

Human Rights Watch’s 35-page paper, “Not a Level Playing Field: Zimbabwe’s 2005 Parliamentary Elections,” documents cases of political intimidation of opposition parties, their supporters and ordinary citizens by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and its political allies. The paper also highlights the government’s use of repressive laws to restrict the activities of political parties and civil society activists. The paper is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in several regions of Zimbabwe in December 2004 and February 2005.

“The people of Zimbabwe should go to the polls in an atmosphere free from intimidation,” said Kasambala. “The government has denied the opposition, civil society activists and ordinary citizens the right to freely express their opinions.”

Human Rights Watch’s briefing paper sets out specific cases of intimidation and violations of the right to association, expression and assembly:

  • A local headmaster in Chipinge South Manicaland described being beaten and accused of supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) by local ZANU PF youth. On August 2, 2004, several ZANU PF youth came to his school and beat and threatened him in front of fellow teachers and school children. Nine days later, the youth paraded him at a ZANU PF rally and forced him to apologize for being an MDC supporter. Although he reported the case to the police, no arrests were made and he was unable to return to his school, as ZANU PF youth continued to threaten him.
  • An NGO youth activist in Bulawayo described how Central Intelligence Organization officers arrested him after a youth workshop in late January 2005: “They questioned me and told me that the (ZANU PF) primaries had been poorly attended by the youth and we strongly believe that you are the guys from the MDC who are telling people not to participate. They left me in a room for three hours. Then they put me in an open truck (it was raining) and drove me to Harare Central Police station where I was interrogated again. I was accused of being MDC. They were saying: who are you to mobilize young people?” He was detained overnight in Bulawayo and spent another night in Harare Central Police Station. The police threatened to charge him under the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) for holding a meeting likely to breach the peace, but later released him without charge.
  • On January 23, 2005, up to fifty riot police disrupted a private workshop in Bulawayo and arrested and detained an MDC Member of Parliament for Makokoba constituency, Thokozani Khupe, and sixty-two others. They were charged under the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) for holding a public meeting without permission. Khupe was detained overnight and then released on bail.

Human Rights Watch said that media organizations and independent newspapers have been constantly under threat of closure under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which has been selectively used by the government against independent journalists and media organizations perceived to be critical of the government. This has led to the closure of a number of independent newspapers. On February 25, a weekly independent newspaper, the Weekly Times, closed after the government-run Media and Information Commission accused it of presenting misleading information about its publications and cancelled its license for one year.

In preparation for the election, the government enacted two new electoral laws, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act and the Electoral Act. The government has claimed that these laws live up to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, but Human Rights Watch found that these new laws fail to adequately meet the benchmarks set by the Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.

Human Rights Watch urged SADC member states to call on the government of Zimbabwe to ensure that in the days remaining before the election, efforts are made to guarantee that all candidates are able to campaign freely and openly throughout the country, that all candidates have access to the media, that journalists and observers are not prevented from observing the election process in all areas of the country, and that voters are allowed to make up their minds and vote in an environment free of intimidation.

“SADC member states and election observers have a responsibility to spotlight the flaws in the entire electoral process,” Kasambala said. “The fact that the early campaign period has been marred by such human rights abuses certainly undermines the electoral process itself.”

Human Rights Watch called on the SADC observer mission to issue a thorough and objective report analyzing whether the March 31 elections comply with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.

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