(Johannesburg) - The Chinese government should immediately recall the shipment of weapons aboard the An Yue Jiang intended for Zimbabwe and currently off the coast of southern Africa, Human Rights Watch said today. In a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao released today, Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese government to cease all arms deliveries to Zimbabwe while the very high risk exists of such weapons being used against the civilian population.

“China prides itself on being a ‘responsible power,’” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “This means it has no business shipping arms to an abusive government in the middle of a brutal and violent crackdown.”

The An Yue Jiang, a property of the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company, is reportedly carrying 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades, 3,000 mortar rounds and mortar tubes, as well as 3 million rounds of AK-47 assault rifle ammunition. This shipment is believed to correspond to an order placed by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) leadership in Zimbabwe around the time of the country’s disputed elections on March 29, 2008. The ship was docked last week in the South African port of Durban, but dockworkers refused to unload the cargo. Last Friday, South Africa’s High Court barred transport of these weapons across South Africa from Durban to landlocked Zimbabwe after an Anglican archbishop argued that the government of President Robert Mugabe might use them against political opponents.

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe. Recent abuses include the establishment, by members of Zimbabwe’s armed forces and ZANU-PF, of torture camps that are aimed specifically at members of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change and civilians who did not vote for Mugabe in the March elections. Over the past year, police and military forces in Zimbabwe have on several occasions opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in violation of international law.

In its letter to President Hu, Human Rights Watch said that any state sending new arms and ammunition into this highly repressive environment could be complicit in Zimbabwe’s human rights abuses. The planned arms shipment to Zimbabwe violates the principles of China’s own regulations for the export of arms to other countries: enabling the buyer to meet legitimate self-defense needs, strengthening peace, security and stability in the region concerned, and not using military sales to interfere in the internal affairs of other states.

“China is trying to put its best face forward as it prepares to host the Beijing Olympics,” Richardson said. “But arming Mugabe’s Zimbabwe government has disaster plastered all over it.”