(Johannesburg, June 9, 2008) – The Zimbabwean government’s campaign of violence and intimidation against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has extinguished any chance of a free and fair presidential runoff on June 27, 2008, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Human Rights Watch urged the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to use its influence and push President Robert Mugabe to take immediate steps to end the violence and hold those responsible to account.
“Since the runoff was announced the violence in Zimbabwe has gotten even worse,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Zimbabweans can’t vote freely if they fear their vote may get them killed.”
ZANU-PF and its allies are also engaged in a politically motivated campaign of looting and destruction, slaughtering animals, stealing food and property, and burning down homesteads. “War veterans” and youth militia have set up roadblocks and taken control of huge swathes of the countryside in order to limit the flow of information on the extent of the violence and to punish those perceived to have voted for the MDC. The government has also ordered all local and international nongovernmental organizations to suspend their operations in Zimbabwe, accusing them of politicizing aid distribution.
More than 3,000 people are known to have fled the violence and are now internally displaced in cities and towns throughout the country with inadequate access to food and water. An unknown number have fled across the borders to Mozambique, Botswana, and South Africa.
The violence has been particularly concentrated in former rural strongholds of ZANU-PF, in particular the provinces of Mashonaland East, Mashonaland Central, and Mashonaland West – areas where for the first time the MDC made significant inroads, losing by much narrower margins than ZANU-PF had anticipated. In other violence-affected provinces such as Masvingo and Manicaland, ZANU-PF lost constituencies that it had previously held to the MDC.
Human Rights Watch researchers gathered extensive evidence of the role of senior-ranking army and police officers in inciting and organizing the violence. For example, several people alleged that Police Assistant Commissioner Martin Kwainona of the Presidential Guard was involved in inciting, leading, and perpetrating violence in Mt. Darwin, Mashonaland Central. One man told Human Rights Watch that Kwainona assaulted him and told him he was going to rid the area of all suspected MDC activists and supporters. Another told Human Rights Watch that Kwainona threatened people attending a gathering in Mt. Darwin on April 18, saying: “All MDC members in Mt. Darwin must be made to disappear, we are busy training our youths to do just that.”
In Mashonaland East, four persons identified a commander in the Air Force, Bramwell Kachairo, as being responsible for organizing and sometimes taking part in beatings in the province. One eyewitness told Human Rights Watch he had seen Kachairo threatening people with groups of “war veterans” in Mashonaland East: “He is the one leading the violence. He goes around with the youth militia and ‘war veterans’ and is always armed.” Another witness said: “I have seen him beating people in the area. He is very dangerous.”
ZANU-PF and its allies have also established torture camps, and organized abusive “re-education” meetings around the country to compel MDC supporters into voting for Mugabe. Hundreds of people have been subjected to severe beatings, with logs, whips, bicycle chains, and other forms of torture during these meetings and at the camps.
In one of the “re-education” meetings, on May 5 in Chiweshe, Mashonaland Central, ZANU-PF officials and “war veterans” beat six men to death and tortured another 70 men and women, including a 76-year-old woman publicly thrashed in front of assembled villagers. Victims informed Human Rights Watch that “war veteran” retired Major Cairo Mhandu organized and incited the beatings in Chiweshe.
In Mutoko, Mashonaland East on the night of April 10, ZANU-PF supporters brutally beat before the entire village about 20 men suspected of voting for the MDC. A 45-year-old man told Human Rights Watch that the ZANU-PF supporters used whips, chains, and iron bars to beat him and they broke his left leg below the knee. They repeatedly said that his “crime” was that he voted for the MDC during the elections.
The government has prevented international aid agencies from distributing food aid to hundreds of thousands of people around the country in an attempt to control the distribution of food and use it as a tool to influence the election outcome.
“President Mugabe and his government of Zimbabwe bear full responsibility for these serious crimes,” Gagnon said. “They have shown gross indifference to the plight of the people, allowing senior-ranking security officers, ‘war veterans,’ youth militia and ZANU-PF free rein to commit horrifying abuses.”
Human Rights Watch also investigated the government’s increasing repression of civil society organizations and the media. In May, police arrested several trade unionists, a human rights lawyer, and a number of journalists on politically motivated charges. In an apparent bid to subvert the runoff electoral process and instill fear in local election officials and observers, police have arrested more than 100 presiding officers and election officials on politically motivated charges of electoral fraud. ZANU-PF supporters have attacked hundreds of observers from the independent election organization Zimbabwe Election Support Network, forcing many to flee their homes.
Human Rights Watch called on members of the African Union and Southern Africa Development Community to show political leadership in support of human rights and stability in Zimbabwe by taking decisive steps to help end the violence in Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch urged the AU and SADC to deploy election observer teams that have a sufficiently strong mandate to observe and report on the runoff based on regional AU and SADC principles guiding elections, and in a manner that accurately reflects the conditions on the ground.
Human Rights Watch also urged the AU and SADC leaders to insist on full accountability for politically motivated crimes committed in Zimbabwe since March 29 and to call for an independent and impartial commission of inquiry into the abuses.
“AU and SADC leaders should not turn a blind eye to the serious abuses taking place in Zimbabwe,” said Gagnon. “They should make it clear to Zimbabwe that they won’t endorse the elections and the result unless the government takes immediate measures to end the violence and other abuses.”