(Johannesburg) - The extraordinary summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on April 12, 2008 is the regional body’s last real chance to resolve Zimbabwe’s worsening political crisis, Human Rights Watch said today. President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, chair of the SADC, called the meeting in Lusaka in response to the political impasse in Zimbabwe which has seen a delay in the release of presidential results from Zimbabwe’s March 29 general election.

“It’s about time that southern African leaders do something to avert the growing threat of a human rights disaster in Zimbabwe,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of letting Robert Mugabe set the terms of the summit talks, they should insist he listen to the will of the Zimbabwean people and end his government’s abuses.”

Human Rights Watch said President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), is resorting to extreme measures to overturn the March 29 general elections, and is preventing the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) from announcing results of the presidential elections.

In the past few days, incidents of violence by ruling party supporters against opposition activists have also increased, with police seemingly unable or unwilling to arrest the perpetrators. For example, representatives from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) informed Human Rights Watch that ZANU-PF supporters beat five MDC activists in Mashonaland West province on April 7. In other incidents, MDC Member of Parliament for Mutasa South Misheck Kagurabadza told Human Rights Watch that teams of ZANU-PF youth were patrolling his constituency in Mancialand province and assaulting people who they believe voted for the opposition. Human Rights Watch has also received credible information of dozens of other similar attacks by ZANU-PF supporters against opposition polling agents and activists, as well as perceived MDC supporters around the country.

Human Rights Watch urged SADC leaders to press the Mugabe government to announce the presidential poll results without delay, and ensure that any necessary presidential run-off takes place within a prescribed timeline. Human Rights Watch also called for genuinely independent international monitors to be allowed into Zimbabwe to act as a deterrent to further abuses in the run-up to a second round of elections.

During Zimbabwe’s pre-election period, Human Rights Watch documented government abuses related to acts of violence and intimidation against opposition activists, the use of food and agricultural inputs as political tools against the opposition, unequal access to the state media, lack of independence of the election commission and related personnel, and concerns about pre-poll rigging.

Despite these concerns, in the parliamentary elections the ruling ZANU-PF party suffered a serious defeat to the MDC. However, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has yet to release the results of the presidential elections that took place on the same day, pitting Mugabe against the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Instead, ZANU-PF has questioned the validity of the presidential vote, challenged the results of 16 parliamentary constituencies which the MDC won, and called on the commission not to release the presidential results.

Since April 4, the authorities have arrested at least eight election officers around the country on as yet unsubstantiated charges of committing fraud and abusing public office in favor of the MDC. In two of the cases lawyers representing the accused election officers were prevented from meeting their clients.

“The arrest of election officers before the presidential results have been announced suggests that ZANU-PF is trying to subvert the outcome,” said Gagnon.

Human Rights Watch called on SADC members to make clear to Mugabe that there would be consequences if his government continued to flout regional and international human rights standards.

“So far, SADC leaders have proven unable or unwilling to deal with Zimbabwe’s political crisis, and if they can’t get tough with Mugabe now they should just hand over to the African Union,” said Gagnon.