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(Johannesburg) – Zimbabwe’s “unity government” is failing to carry out reforms in the country’s Global Political Agreement that are vital for the country to hold credible, free, and fair elections in 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 28-page report, “Race Against Time: The Need for Legal and Institutional Reforms Ahead of Zimbabwe’s Elections,” assesses the legislative and electoral reforms undertaken by the unity government, which was established in 2009 after the 2008 elections resulted in violence. The unity government consists of the former ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the two factions of the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The deeply fractured unity government has failed to reform key laws or the justice system, which remains extremely partisan toward ZANU-PF, Human Rights Watch said. It has also failed to hold accountable those responsible for past human rights abuses, including during the 2008 electoral violence.

“To hold credible, free, and fair elections in 2013, Zimbabwe’s government needs to level the political playing field and create a rights-respecting environment now,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This means amending repressive laws and replacing partisan police chiefs and election officials with impartial professionals.”

Many Zimbabweans are concerned that without the needed reforms elections expected in 2013 will result in widespread violence and human rights violations, as occurred in 2008, Human Rights Watch said.

The unity government has failed to make any changes to repressive laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act, and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. These laws have been used to severely curtail basic rights through vague defamation clauses and draconian penalties. ZANU-PF has not agreed to genuine and comprehensive institutional reforms to end the politically partisan leadership of key state institutions such as the security forces, election bodies, and government broadcasters.

The newly created Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission could help improve the human rights environment, but its mandate is limited to investigating and reporting on human rights abuses committed after the unity government was formed in February 2009, excluding the widespread electoral violence of 2008.

The reconstituted Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has new commissioners, but the secretariat staff is largely the same pro-ZANU-PF team that worked for previous commissions. ZANU-PF resists calls by civil society and the MDC factions for an independent audit of electoral commission staff followed by the recruitment of professional and non-partisan personnel.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC), an inter-governmental body of 15 southern African countries, should independently assess and certify that conditions in Zimbabwe meet criteria in the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections before it clears Zimbabwe to hold elections, Human Rights Watch said. SADC should also deploy SADC and African Union election observers to Zimbabwe early and in sufficient numbers, and maintain them on the ground well after elections to deter violence and intimidation.

The European Union and the United States should also maintain restrictive measures on President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle, including travel bans and assets freezes, pending tangible human rights reforms, Human Rights Watch said.

“SADC should not only call upon Zimbabwe’s political leaders to carry out critical reforms, but clarify the consequences if they don’t,” Bekele said. “SADC and donor governments should not shy away from using sanctions on individuals and other measures to improve respect for human rights in Zimbabwe.”

The June 2008 presidential runoff elections in Zimbabwe were characterized by widespread intimidation and political violence – largely by pro-ZANU-PF militia and supporters against opposition MDC activists – that left over 200 people dead.

The SADC Election Observer Mission concluded that the 2008 election did not conform to SADC standards, leading to negotiations and the signing of the Global Political Agreement in November 2008. The unity government was established in February 2009 to carry out the reforms necessary to pave the way for genuinely free and fair elections.

Mugabe has called for holding elections in March. The timing of national elections is governed by Zimbabwe’s constitution, which provides that parliament, unless dissolved earlier, shall last for five years, counting from the day the person elected as president enters into office. Mugabe was sworn in on June 29, 2008, and the presidential and parliamentary term of office ends on June 29, 2013. The constitution requires holding new elections no more than four months after that date. If elections are not held in March as Mugabe has indicated, the latest they can be held constitutionally is October 29.

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