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(Johannesburg) – Zimbabwe’s “unity government” should carry out reforms to ensure that state security forces conduct themselves in a non-partisan and professional  manner before the country holds national elections in 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 44-page report, “The Elephant in the Room: Reforming the Security Sector Ahead of Zimbabwe’s Elections,” describes how Zimbabwe’s military and other security forces have interfered in the country’s political and electoral affairs in support of President Robert Mugabe and his political party, ZANU-PF, preventing Zimbabweans from exercising their rights to free expression and association and to vote. This was particularly evident during the June 2008 presidential run-off election, when the army committed widespread abuses including killings, beatings, and torture. Since then, the leadership of the military, police, and internal security agency, the Central Intelligence Organization, has remained unchanged and openly supportive of Mugabe.

“With the security forces right up to the top leaders threatening and attacking Mugabe’s perceived opponents, Zimbabweans have little faith in the upcoming elections,” said Tiseke Kasambala, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Zimbabwe’s unity government is going to have to rein in the security forces and keep them out of politics if the elections are going to have any meaning.”

Since the creation of the unity government in September 2009, several senior military officials have publicly expressed support for Mugabe and ZANU-PF and denigrated Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). As recently as May 1, Police Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri publicly said that the security forces would never meet with Tsvangirai to discuss security reforms and that anyone who reported on or raised the issue risked arrest.

Then on May 4, the Zimbabwe Defense Forces commander, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, similarly told the state-run weekly The Sunday Mail that he would not meet with Tsvangirai to discuss security reforms: “We have no time to meet sellouts. Clearly Tsvangirai is a psychiatric patient who needs a competent psychiatrist.”

The partisan statements by the security forces leadership are reflected in actions security forces are taking on the ground, Human Rights Watch said. On May 7, police arrested Dumisani Muleya, editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, and Owen Gagare, its chief reporter, after the newspaper published an article saying that Tsvangirai had met with the heads of the security forces. The police interrogated the two men and detained them for eight hours, then charged them under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act with “publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State.” 

Human Rights Watch investigations found that the Zimbabwe National Army has deployed soldiers across the country, intimidating, beating, and otherwise abusing perceived supporters of the MDC or those critical of the government. At times these soldiers have used food distribution, community school projects, and even an “army history research project” to obtain entry into various communities.

On March 17, a day after a referendum on the new constitution, five armed soldiers in uniform approached an MDC supporter at Mataga Growth point, Mberengwa, in Midlands province, and demanded to know if he had voted “yes” in the referendum. The MDC supporter told Human Rights Watch:

When I said I had voted in favor of the draft constitution they then asked me why I was wearing an MDC t-shirt and before I could respond they began to punch and kick me all over my body. They said I must vote for ZANU-PF in the coming elections without fail or they would come back for me. 

Human Rights Watch has documented  and received reports of abuses in Buhera, Nyanga, Chipinge, and Mutare in Manicaland province; Gokwe, Zhombe, Mberengwa, and Silobela in Midlands province; and Chivhu, Marondera, and Uzumba in Mashonaland East province.

“Zimbabwe’s laws and constitution require neutrality and impartiality from the security forces but the security forces have shown no sign of meeting their obligations,” Kasambala said.  “The government needs to send a clear message by disciplining and prosecuting security force personnel and soldiers who violate the law for political reasons.”

The unity government should take urgent steps to ensure the political neutrality of Zimbabwe’s security forces, Human Rights Watch said, with support from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the regional body consisting of 15 southern African countries.

The government needs to investigate and prosecute alleged abuses by security force personnel. It also needs to publicly direct the security forces leadership to carry out their responsibilities professionally and impartially and to appropriately punish leaders who don’t.

“SADC should make improving the behavior of the security forces a key pillar of the Zimbabwe roadmap to credible, free, and fair elections,” Kasambala said. “The coming elections are an important step in ending the country’s longstanding human rights crisis.” 

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