(Johannesburg) - Any transition to democracy following the power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe will remain fragile unless the political leadership takes steps to address human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Any deal should immediately end ongoing violations and hold to account those responsible for past abuses.

“Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF must show their commitment to the power-sharing agreement by bringing about an immediate end to abuses,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They should release political prisoners, dismantle torture camps set up around the elections and disarm ZANU-PF party members and its allies.”

Negotiations between Zimbabwe’s main political parties – the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – have not brought an end to abuses. In August 2008, police arrested six MDC parliamentarians on what Human Rights Watch believes are politically motivated charges. Bednock Nyaude, Shua Mudiwa, Mathias Mlambo, Pearson Mungofa, Eliah Jembere, and Trevor Saruwaka were arrested in Harare during the opening of parliament. The parliamentarians were recently released on bail.

ZANU-PF supporters, government-backed “war veterans” and “youth militia” continue to terrorize Zimbabweans in rural areas. The government has failed to dismantle the torture camps that it established in the immediate aftermath of the March 29, 2008 general elections. Despite lifting a three-month ban on operations by local and international humanitarian agencies, the government has tightened its control over their operations. If they wish to operate in a specific area, they must first get permission and a memorandum of understanding from the relevant government ministry. The restrictive government controls have left the delivery of humanitarian assistance open to manipulation by government agents and local ZANU-PF officials.

Zimbabwe’s long history of impunity for politically motivated crimes has contributed to the current crisis. Those who committed past abuses have remained free to carry out further acts of violence and intimidation. Supporters and officials of ZANU-PF, army officials, “war veterans,” and “youth militia” have been implicated in the killing of at least 163 people and the beating and torture of more than 5,000 others over the past four months. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled the violence that has plagued the country since the March 29 elections.

Human Rights Watch called for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate past and present abuses and for the government to bring the perpetrators to justice. Government and party officials implicated in abuses should not be included in any future government, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch called on Zimbabwe’s political leadership to take urgent measures over the next 60 days to address endemic impunity and strengthen institutional reform to demonstrate their commitment to real change, including:

  • Review and repeal repressive laws;
  • Restore the justice system;
  • End arbitrary arrest and detention; and
  • Address problems with the electoral process.

Repressive laws
In the past few years, the government of Zimbabwe has instituted a raft of repressive laws that violate the rights of Zimbabweans to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. These include the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act, the Criminal Law (Codification) Act, and the Miscellaneous Offences Act. Human Rights Watch said that Zimbabwe’s political leadership should take immediate steps to repeal these laws, and together with nongovernmental human rights organizations institute a comprehensive process of review of all laws in force, with a view to the repeal or amendment of those that do not comply with international human rights standards.

The justice system
Zimbabwe’s judiciary and police force have been severely compromised under the current government. The police are responsible for widespread violations, including harassment, threats and violence against opposition supporters and human rights activists, and torture and other mistreatment. In the past four months, police have routinely refused to take action against ZANU-PF supporters and militia implicated in political violence. Human Rights Watch research over the past eight years found that public confidence in the judiciary and police – especially with respect to independence and impartiality – has been progressively eroded.

Starting in 2000, the government of Zimbabwe began an onslaught on the judiciary that included physical and verbal attacks against judges, and bribes to compromise the impartiality, and undermine the work of, the judiciary. A new government needs to focus on these and other issues relating to the administration of justice to help restore respect for human rights and the rule of law – respect that is essential not only for the rights of Zimbabweans, but also to promote the external investment that is necessary to bring Zimbabwe out of its current economic crisis.

Arbitrary arrest and detention
The arrest of six MDC parliamentarians in August reflects a wider problem of arbitrary arrest and detention in Zimbabwe. Police often arrest opposition activists, journalists and human rights defenders without evidence, detain them without charge beyond the 48-hour limit, and deny them bail or access to their lawyers or relatives. These arrests are an ongoing attempt by the current government to intimidate and harass its opponents and critics. These and other politically motivated cases need to be reviewed immediately. Those held without charge or who have been charged with offenses that violate their basic rights should be promptly released. Persons who have been charged with legally cognizable offenses should be promptly brought to trial before courts that meet international fair trial standards.

Problems with the electoral process
Human Rights Watch documented serious flaws with Zimbabwe’s electoral process during the March 29 elections and the presidential runoff on June 27.These included government-instigated violence, intimidation and threats against opposition candidates and party members, lack of judicial independence, restrictions on the media, lack of independence of the electoral commission and related personnel, manipulation of government-subsidized food, and concerns about pre-poll rigging. The political leadership should work with national and international organizations to address these issues to ensure that the next elections in Zimbabwe represent a genuinely free and fair electoral process, Human Rights Watch said.

“The power-sharing agreement should ensure justice for past and present human rights abuses and correct the systemic failures of governance in Zimbabwe,” Gagnon said. “A political agreement built on impunity is unlikely to last – and may well serve as an invitation to more atrocities in the future.”