JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Zimbabwe’s chances of holding free and fair elections are “slim” unless the state security sector is reformed, Human Rights said in a report documenting abuses ahead of upcoming polls.
Zimbabwe is slated to hold presidential elections this year, the first since the disputed 2008 vote that left hundreds dead in widespread political violence. The country’s top court ruled last week that elections must be held by July 31.
But the New York-based rights group said the Zimbabwe National Army, which is allied to President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party, has deployed soldiers across the country that are intimidating and beating perceived supporters of the rival Movement for Democratic Change, as well as persons critical of the government.
“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,” Tiseke Kasambala, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“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 2008, Zanu-PF has ruled under a power-sharing agreement with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC. But key reforms agreed to under the unity government deal still haven’t been implemented, in particular changes to the security sector.
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One supporter of the MDC told Human Rights Watch researchers that a day after the March 17 referendum on Zimbabwe’s new constitution, soldiers approached him and demanded to know if he had voted “yes.”
“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,” the unnamed man said, according to the report.
“They said I must vote for Zanu-PF in the coming elections without fail or they would come back for me,” he said.
The commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces last month told the state-run 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,” General Constantine Chiwenga is quoted as saying.
Meanwhile two journalists with the Zimbabwe Independent weekly have been charged with publishing “false statements prejudicial to the state,” after a story suggested that security officials close to Mugabe were in secret talks with the MDC.
In its report, Human Rights Watch called for the unity government to “take urgent steps to ensure the political neutrality of Zimbabwe’s security forces,” with support from SADC, the regional bloc representing southern African nations.
“The government needs to send a clear message by disciplining and prosecuting security force personnel and soldiers who violate the law for political reasons,” Kasambala said.
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