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(Johannesburg) - President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and state security forces have sharply intensified a campaign of organized terror and torture against opposition activists and ordinary Zimbabweans, Human Rights Watch said today. Armed riot police raided the Harare headquarters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on April 25, 2008 and arbitrarily arrested scores of people, including women and children seeking refuge there.

“We’re seeing a major increase in government-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe right now,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The ruling party has been sending its allies – youth militia and so-called “war veterans” – after people it thinks voted for the opposition in last month’s election. In recent days, the army has been playing a direct role in the repression, and police have arrested people fleeing the violence. Now anyone seen as opposing Mugabe is in danger.”

Over the past few days, Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of increasing violence by ZANU-PF militias and the military, both in the number of incidents recorded and the brutality used. For example, one MDC supporter from Uzumba, Mashonaland East province, told Human Rights Watch that ZANU-PF militia members had cut off his ear. Another man from Mudzi, also in Mashonaland East told Human Rights Watch that he received severe wounds to his buttocks after being beaten with logs. His attackers told him that if he went to the hospital for treatment, they would come back and kill him. The man reported to Human Rights Watch that by the time he reached medical treatment in Harare, his flesh had begun to rot.

For the first time since the post-election crackdown in Zimbabwe started, Human Rights Watch has documented several incidents of retaliatory violence by MDC supporters, although the scope of these incidents bears no comparison to the widespread state-sponsored violence by ZANU-PF and its allies. Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that in parts of Mashonaland East and Manicaland provinces, MDC supporters had burned homes of known ZANU-PF supporters and officials. The emergence of tit-for-tat retaliatory attacks between ZANU-PF and MDC supporters could further escalate the violence putting the general population at greater risk.

More than 40 armed riot police raided the MDC headquarters, known as Harvest House, during the morning of April 25 and forced scores of men, women and children into a pickup truck and a bus. It is not known where the police have taken them. They were among 250 persons, including some 60 women and children, sheltering at Harvest House after fleeing increasing violence and torture by ZANU-PF in rural areas. Police also confiscated MDC computers and files. The police claimed those arrested were wanted for assault and arson.

Also on April 25, eight Criminal Investigation Division (CID) police officers entered the offices of the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN), the only nationwide independent election monitoring organization which had compiled its own data on the disputed March 29 elections. Police officers searched the premises and confiscated files and other sensitive information. They interrogated ZESN’s program manager, Tsungai Kokerai, for seven hours.

In the wake of the disputed elections, ZANU-PF and its allies set up torture camps in areas where the opposition has made significant progress and opposition strongholds. In the city of Mutare, for instance, a country club was turned into an informal torture center. Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern for the welfare of an estimated 500 people, including more than 100 children, who are believed to be sheltering in the MDC’s regional headquarters in Mutare to try to escape state-sponsored violence.

Human Rights Watch investigations have also found that the political violence in Chivi South constituency, in Masvingo province, demonstrates the organized nature of state-sponsored violence against the MDC and the increasing role of the army. According to eyewitnesses, five days after the election, a group of so-called “war veterans” arrived in the area, and went from ward to ward, urging people to “repent” for voting MDC. They forced people to attend pro-government rallies where MDC supporters were made to burn their party cards and MDC T-shirts, and become members of ZANU-PF. The “war veterans” severely beat several MDC supporters, and burned the homes of others. On April 18, a group of army and police officials arrived in Chivi South and at a meeting with the traditional chief and village headman demanded that the village headman compile a list of all known and suspected MDC supporters in their village. Army troops burned more homes of suspected MDC voters the day after the meeting.

Zimbabwe’s parliamentary elections delivered a decisive defeat for the ruling ZANU-PF led by Mugabe. Yet, almost four weeks later, the ZANU-PF-appointed Electoral Commission has failed to announce the results of the presidential poll that took place at the same time. On April 19, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission carried out a recount in 23 constituencies that was seriously flawed because the original ballot boxes had been moved to undisclosed locations.

“The recount results expected this weekend or early next week will do little to restore credibility to this election process,” Gagnon said. “The violent crackdown on the opposition is just one more sign that President Mugabe will stop at nothing to keep hold of power. A re-run of the presidential race will have no validity.”

Human Rights Watch said that the dramatic escalation of violence shows that the initiatives of the intergovernmental Southern African Development Community (SADC) and South African President Thabo Mbeki’s mediation role have not been effective in resolving the political impasse and ending the violence.

“The SADC and President Mbeki are standing by as Zimbabweans suffer horribly at the government’s hands,” said Gagnon. “The African Union should immediately step in to protect civilians and resolve this crisis before it gets any worse.”

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