(Johannesburg) - Southern African leaders should make an end to the violence in Zimbabwe their top priority at the upcoming Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) summit in Johannesburg, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. On August 16, 2008, South African President Thabo Mbeki is expected to brief SADC leaders on the progress of negotiations between the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The 19-page report, “‘They Beat Me like a Dog’: Political Persecution of Opposition Activists and Supporters in Zimbabwe,” describes ongoing abuses, including killings, beatings and arbitrary arrests, by ZANU-PF and its allies against MDC members of parliament, activists and supporters before and after the June 27 presidential runoff election. Hundreds of MDC activists who fled the violence in the weeks before the vote remain in hiding, while armed ZANU-PF supporters and government-backed “war veterans” and “youth militia” continue to terrorize villagers in the rural areas, the report found. The government has made little effort to dismantle the torture camps and bases established by ZANU-PF and its allies since the first round of elections on March 29.
“ZANU-PF and its allies are still committing violent abuses, undermining the party’s credibility as a political partner,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of focusing on quick political fixes, President Thabo Mbeki and other SADC leaders should look for a durable solution, and that means, first of all, an immediate end to human rights violations.”
The presence of torture camps and of armed ZANU-PF supporters, militias and war veterans highlights the precarious nature of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch said. The ongoing tragedy has been exacerbated by an increasingly dire humanitarian situation. Severe government restrictions on the distribution of humanitarian assistance, including food aid by local and international agencies, have had a devastating impact on people in the rural areas of Zimbabwe. According to the World Food Programme, an estimated 5 million people are in need of food aid.
In the past four months, ZANU-PF and its allies have been implicated in the killing of at least 163 people and the beating and torture of more than 5,000 others. Thirty-two of these people were killed after the June 27 runoff and two since ZANU-PF and the MDC signed a memorandum of understanding that paved the way for negotiations.
A 70-year-old woman witnessed the brutal killing of her son, Gibbs Chironga, an MDC councilor in Chiweshe, Mashonaland Central, by suspected ZANU-PF supporters on June 20, and was herself viciously assaulted. She told Human Rights Watch:
“I am an old woman and they beat me like a dog, no, a wild animal. They insulted me; they beat me on the back and in the ribs. My only crime was that my son was an MDC councilor. I am in great pain. Now my son is in the mortuary, I am unable to bury him. I will not be there when he is buried, if he is buried. I regret being alive. My life is ruined, my home is destroyed and my son’s life was taken in cold blood.”
Since March 29, police have engaged in a witch-hunt of elected MDC members of parliament, with 12 opposition MPs facing what Human Rights Watch believes to be politically motivated criminal charges. Police have taken little or no action to investigate abuses of the kind documented in this report, with few investigations or prosecutions of serious crimes committed by ZANU-PF and its allies since the March elections and little legal redress or compensation for the victims.
“There can be no trade-off between the political process and the need for justice and an end to human rights abuses,’’ said Gagnon. “The Zimbabwean government’s refusal to account for serious crimes will only damage the prospects for political stability in Zimbabwe. SADC leaders can make a difference by insisting that abusers be held to account under any political deal.”
Human Rights Watch urged SADC leaders to insist on agreement between the political parties to a comprehensive program of human rights reform prior to any final political agreement, and on obtaining measurable progress on human rights, including:
- An end to the government’s violent campaign against MDC activists and perceived MDC supporters by state security forces, ZANU-PF supporters and officials, youth militia and war veterans;
- Government dismantling of all torture camps and bases throughout the country and prosecution of those responsible for torture and other mistreatment;
- An end to politically motivated arrests of MDC officials and activists, and the release of those arbitrarily detained;
- Government lifting of the suspension against local and international humanitarian agencies;
- Government demobilizing and disarming all ZANU-PF supporters and officials, youth militia and war veterans; and
- The establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate reports of extrajudicial executions, torture and ill-treatment.