The Zimbabwean government should end its violent crackdown on the political opposition, civil society activists, and even ordinary Zimbabweans in neighborhoods seen as opposition strongholds, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Human Rights Watch called on South African President Thabo Mbeki—who has a mandate from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to address Zimbabwe’s political crisis—to make human rights a central part of his planned mediation talks between the ruling party and the opposition.

“President Mbeki has a chance to push for an end to the massive human rights violations that are fueling Zimbabwe’s crisis,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Leaders of SADC countries should take a stronger stance against the appalling human rights situation in Zimbabwe.”

The 39-page report, “Bashing Dissent: Escalating Violence and State Repression in Zimbabwe,” documents the Zimbabwean government’s crackdown on peaceful protest and dissent since March. Based on two weeks of research in Harare, Bulawayo, Masvingo, Mutare, and Bindura, the report provides first-hand accounts of the government’s widespread and systematic abuses against opposition members and civil society activists, as well as its increasingly violent repression of ordinary Zimbabweans in Harare’s densely populated suburbs.

“Arbitrary arrests, detentions, and brutal beatings by police and security forces skyrocketed in March and April, and continue unabated,” said Gagnon. “The Zimbabwean government is violating the human rights of its citizens with impunity.”

The Save Zimbabwe Campaign—a broad coalition of Zimbabwean civil society organizations and members of the political opposition—attempted to hold a prayer meeting in the Harare suburb of Highfield on March 11. As hundreds of people streamed into the Zimbabwe Grounds, heavily armed riot police launched a brutal and unprovoked attack on them, beating people with batons and rifle butts and injuring dozens in an effort to prevent the meeting from taking place. Police arrested scores of opposition members and civil society activists, including the leaders of the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The MDC members and civil society activists who were arrested were then held at various police stations around Harare, and many of them were brutally beaten by police and security agents in detention.

The report also documents how police have used disproportionate and lethal force against unarmed activists, resulting in the death of one activist and serious injuries to several others. At the March 12 funeral of MDC member Gift Tandare, who was shot dead by police on March 11 in the immediate aftermath of the prayer meeting in Harare, two MDC supporters were seriously injured when police opened fire on mourners.

“The police jumped out of their trucks and started beating everyone there. They were two guys who were shot at the funeral, I saw it,” said an MDC supporter who witnessed 20 to 30 police armed with guns, batons and police dogs storm the funeral. “One was shot in the arm, and one in the leg. They just fired. They said ‘disperse, disperse, what are you doing here?’ and some people started running, and that’s how the two were shot. Those of us who didn’t run were forced to lie down and beaten.”

Victims of violence told Human Rights Watch, in the immediate aftermath of the March 11 attack, that police went on a two-week rampage randomly beating people walking in the streets, in shopping malls and beer halls in several high-density Harare suburbs, which the authorities view as opposition strongholds. Police also went from house to house beating people with batons and accusing them of belonging to the opposition.

The high levels of repression in the suburbs continue. Police have imposed an informal curfew in several suburbs, including Glenview and Highfield, arresting and beating anyone they suspect of supporting the opposition, especially at night.

“Right now, no one walks about after 7 p.m., unless you want a beating,” one man in Highfield told Human Rights Watch. “My nephew was beaten the other day as he was walking home late after visiting friends. The police accused him of being one of the MDC activists who plan acts of violence, but my nephew doesn’t support any party.”

The Zimbabwean government claims that it is responding to an opposition campaign of violence and terror in the country. The authorities have arrested more than 30 MDC members and supporters whom it accuses of orchestrating and conducting 11 petrol bomb attacks around the country on police camps, a passenger train, and two stores since March 12. The MDC denies the allegations and accuses state agents of staging the attacks to justify a crackdown on the opposition.

“The petrol bomb attacks are serious crimes, and those responsible must be brought to account,” said Gagnon, “But these attacks do not justify the government’s violent attacks on hundreds of ordinary Zimbabweans, opposition members and supporters, and civil society activists.”

In contrast to government claims that primary responsibility for the recent violence lies with the political opposition, Human Rights Watch found that Zimbabwe’s police forces, agents of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), and groups of government-backed “youth militia” are the main perpetrators of serious human rights violations. The government’s failure to curb abuses by these groups is likely to encourage further unchecked violence, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch called on the Zimbabwean police and security forces to immediately halt the use of excessive force against demonstrators. Police and security forces must also stop intimidating, harassing, and beating opposition members, civil society activists, and ordinary Zimbabweans. The government must investigate and prosecute all incidents of abuse.

Human Rights Watch urged SADC to publicly call for an immediate end to the ongoing violence and human rights violations in Zimbabwe, and for all those found responsible to be brought to justice. SADC should deploy an independent mission to Zimbabwe to investigate reports of human rights abuses in line with SADC’s stated objective to promote and enhance the development of democratic institutions and practices within member states, and to encourage the observance of international human rights obligations under the treaties of the African Union and the United Nations.