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(Johannesburg) - Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF party is using a network of informal detention centers to beat, torture, and intimidate opposition activists and ordinary Zimbabweans, Human Rights Watch said today.

Victims and eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that ZANU-PF has set up detention centers in the opposition constituencies of Mutoko North, Mutoko South, Mudzi (all in the province of Mashonaland East), and in Bikita West (in the province of Masvingo) to round up and instill fear in suspected political opponents.

“Torture and violence are surging in Zimbabwe,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “ZANU-PF members are setting up torture camps to systematically target, beat, and torture people suspected of having voted for the MDC in last month’s elections.”

During the day, ZANU-PF and their allies (so-called “war veterans,” youth militias and some armed men in military uniform) gather at these camps to decide on their targets, generally those known or thought to support the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). According to witnesses, the targets are then rounded up and brought to the camps at night, where they are beaten for hours with thick wooden sticks and army batons. Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than 30 people in the last two days who have sustained serious injuries, including broken limbs, as a result of these beatings.

Zimbabwe’s parliamentary elections on March 29, 2008 delivered a decisive defeat for the ruling ZANU-PF led by Robert Mugabe. Yet, nearly three weeks later, the ZANU-PF-appointed Election Commission has failed to announce the results of the presidential poll that took place at the same time.

ZANU-PF officials are calling the crackdown Operation Makavhoterapapi, or “Where did you put your cross?” There seem to be two aims to this organized violence: to punish people for having voted for the MDC and to intimidate them to vote for ZANU-PF if there is a presidential run-off. One victim told Human Rights Watch: “They told me that next time you will vote wisely, now you know what we can do.”

Several individuals told Human Rights Watch that they had been held in these camps for up to three days and interrogated about MDC leaders, MDC funding, and the location of other MDC supporters.

One eyewitness told Human Rights Watch that in Mutoko South he visited several “torture camps,” including Luckydip, Rukada, and Jani. The eyewitness said that at another camp, Chitugazuwa: “I saw a woman who could not walk she’d been so badly beaten.”

Human Rights Watch knows of only one case in which the police have arrested individuals responsible for these beatings. In all other cases, the police have refused to intervene, saying that they are instructed not to interfere in “political matters.” Several victims told Human Rights Watch that some police officers encouraged them to take the law into their own hands and “go and fight back.”

Human Rights Watch said that the camps could not operate without the complicity of senior officials in the security forces and government ministers. Should ZANU-PF force an annulment of the parliamentary vote and a presidential run-off, government bodies, the security forces and the judiciary will not have any credibility to ensure the political impasse is fairly and lawfully resolved, said Human Rights Watch.

In the capital Harare, mixed groups of military officers, riot police, and ZANU-PF militia have rendered numerous MDC supporters homeless. In the high-density suburbs of Harare such as Dzivaresekwa, Epworth, Chitungwiza, and Budiriro, at least 40 people who are real and perceived opposition sympathizers have been attacked since April 15 and driven from their homes.

To date, the intergovernmental Southern African Development Community (SADC) and South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was appointed by SADC to mediate the crisis, have done little to try to curb ZANU-PF abuses. Human Rights Watch called on the African Union to immediately step in to address the crisis.

“The SADC and President Mbeki have completely failed Zimbabweans, and are allowing ZANU-PF to commit horrific abuses,” said Gagnon. “The African Union should assume responsibility for protecting civilians from rising violence, and ending the political impasse before Zimbabwe sinks deeper into disaster.”

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