(London)- The state’s escalating crackdown on leaders of the opposition and nongovernmental organizations is further evidence that Zimbabwe’s June 27 presidential runoff will not be free and fair, Human Rights Watch said today.

International election observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) should actively monitor and publicly report on countrywide abuses by Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

“First the government went after opposition members, now they’re arresting the leaders,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This is another obvious attempt by Mugabe to hijack the election. Where will this escalation of illegality stop?”

On June 12, police arrested Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai for the third time in eight days in an apparent attempt to disrupt his campaign prior to the election. Police stopped him at a security roadblock in Kwekwe and detained him for more than two hours. After being released, Tsvangirai proceeded to Gweru in Midlands where he was arrested and detained along with his aides for two hours before being released without charge.

Also on June 12, police arrested MDC secretary-general, Tendai Biti, at Harare International Airport upon his arrival from South Africa. The authorities said they intend to charge Biti with treason for declaring Tsvangirai the winner of the March 29 elections before the results were officially announced. He is being held in an undisclosed location and denied access to a lawyer.

“The treason accusations against Tendai Biti are yet another clumsy attempt by the government to stop MDC leaders from campaigning,” said Gagnon. “The failure to disclose his whereabouts is a cause for concern and he should be released immediately.”

In the past few days, police have arbitrarily arrested and detained several civil society activists and forced a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to suspend their operations.

On June 11, police ordered several NGOs in Gweru to shut down on the authority of a letter from Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Nicholas Goche banning food aid operations. NGOs that were ordered to shut down include: Gweru Agenda and Gwanda Agenda (both are affiliated with Bulawayo Agenda, an organization that works to promote public rights to fair and accurate information and freedom of expression); the National Constitutional Assembly offices in Masvingo, Gweru, and Matebeleland South; Musasa Project in Gweru; the Gweru office of Médecins Sans Frontières; and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in Gweru.

In Harare, several NGOs have closed out of fear of a government clampdown, including ZIMRIGHTS, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Counseling Services Unit, and Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust. The National Association of NGOs has also ceased all field operations.

On June 9, armed police, central intelligence organization officers, and soldiers entered without a warrant the Ecumenical Centre in Harare, a building that houses various church-based civic groups including the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe (SCMZ), the Ecumenical Support Network, Zimbabwe National Pastors Conference, Christian Alliance, Save Zimbabwe Campaign and PADARE Men’s Forum on Gender. During the raid, police arrested 10 people including the SCMZ general secretary, Prosper Munatsi, and took away files, computers, digital cameras, and a mini bus. Those arrested were later charged with possessing subversive material and detained. They were released on June 13 without going to court after the attorney general’s office refused to prosecute them, citing lack of evidence. However, the police refused to release the files, computers, digital cameras, and mini bus confiscated in the raid, saying the material would be released only after the runoff election.

On June 8, police in Binga, Matebeleland North province, arrested and detained employees and members of the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ) when they attempted to hold a workshop in the area. Police accused Abel Chikomo, Abel Kaingidza, Maureen Kademaunga, and 10 others of holding a public meeting without police clearance under the Public Order and Security Act (POSA). However, according to MMPZ coordinator Andy Moyse, the meeting was a professional meeting that did not require notification or clearance from police under POSA. The 13 were released on June 11 without charge.

“The government’s harassment, intimidation, and arrests of civil society groups harms not only the groups, but also all the people who depend on them for food and other help,” said Gagnon. “This pre-runoff climate of repression and fear is disastrous for all Zimbabweans.”

Attacks on civil society and the opposition are the latest developments in a sustained campaign of terror by the ZANU-PF government against those who voted for the opposition MDC in the March 29 elections. Human Rights Watch has documented extensive use of torture and the deaths of at least 36 people in politically motivated violence in its report “‘Bullets for Each of You’: State-Sponsored Violence since Zimbabwe’s March 29 Elections.”

Human Rights Watch urged SADC and AU observers to report frequently and publicly on all politically motivated crimes and human rights abuses during the runoff campaign to ensure full accountability for those responsible.

SADC and other observers should meticulously check whether the runoff poll meets SADC principles and guidelines on the conduct of elections and other international standards governing elections, Human Rights Watch said.