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Political violence ‘remains a serious problem in Zim’

VUVU VENA JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – Mar 08 2011

Zimbabwe is not ready for elections, and will not be ready until it has dealt with present and past human rights violations.

This was the consensus at a briefing hosted by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Johannesburg on Tuesday, at which it released a 40-page report called “Perpetual Fear: Impunity and Cycles of Violence in Zimbabwe”.

In a statement, HRW said it had “previously documented cases of violence during the 2008 elections, showing that the Zanu-PF-led government was responsible, at the highest levels, for widespread and systematic abuses that led to the killing of up to 200 people, the beating and torture of 5 000 more, and the displacement of about 36 000 people”.

Tiseke Kasambala, author of the report and senior researcher at HRW, said the “perpetual fear” referred to a situation in Zimbabwe where victims of the 2008 violence were living next door to perpetrators of this violence.

 Kasambala also highlighted another theme that runs through the report: the issue of torture. She said most of the people who had been tortured were activists and they “know the people who tortured them, some of them are state agents and nothing has been done to bring them to account”.

 ‘A painful experience’

The report begins with a quote from a person named Tendai L, whose parents are alleged to have been murdered by soldiers and suspected Zanu-PF supporters in mid-2008. Tendai says: “It’s a painful experience knowing that our neighbours, who we see every day, were the perpetrators. I feel angry. The perpetrators have made it clear at their rallies that at the next elections they will do it again because they didn’t get arrested.”

The HRW said it had chosen to release the report at this time due to Mugabe’s call for elections this year. Mugabe was reported at the beginning of the year as saying the power-sharing government between his party, Zanu-PF, and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was not meant to be permanent, and he had the right to dissolve Parliament and call for elections if the current government did not come up with a new Constitution, which was one of the responsibilities of the inclusive government.

Kasambala said there had been a spike in violence in Zimbabwe since the call for elections. Among her concerns is the deterioration of  human rights in Zimbabwe, illustrated recently through the arrest of activists for viewing clips of the uprisings that have led to change in political leadership in some North African countries. Thirty-nine of the activists were released on Tuesday; however, six still remain in custody and are charged with treason and accused of trying to plot Egyptian-style protests to remove Mugabe from power.

The HRW report focuses mainly on human rights violations that took place around the time of elections in 2008. Kasambala said that the power-sharing government has done nothing to ensure justice and accountability for past violations.

 “Two years since the formation of a power-sharing government that was expected to end human rights abuses and restore the rule of law, politically motivated violence and the lack of accountability for abuses remain a serious problem in Zimbabwe,” the report reads.

Furthermore it states that “Members of security forces, … Zanu-PF, and groups allied to Zanu-PF continue to commit human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and abductions, beating, torture, and killings of members and supporters of … the MDC, and those critical of the Zanu-PF and its officials.”

Talking about the possibility of elections at this time, Zimbabwean activist and director of the Heal Trust Zimbabwe, Rashid Mahiya, said: “The reason why people are running around asking for elections is because Zanu-PF feels revitalised. Another issue could be the health of the president.” He said that although the state of Mugabe’s health is unclear, this could be a reason as to why there is a rush for the elections.

Mahiya said the violence in the country has been perpetuated by politicians. “Relationships have been broken. Now it’s either you are MDC or Zanu-PF.” This has become most clear in the rural areas where a sense of community used to be a beacon. He said his organisation is helping recreate an atmosphere of community in the polarised communities.

Commission of inquiry

HRW has called on the current Zimbabwe government to set up an independent commission of inquiry into the human rights violations of 2008, as well those that took place before then.

But activists believe that Zimbabwe is not ready for elections. They have called on the Southern African Development Community and the South African government to pressurise Zimbabwe for justice and accountability.

South African activist Nomboniso Gasa told the Mail & Guardian at the briefing, “Before the process of elections, it is necessary to highlight the climate in Zimbabwe.

 “It is a climate of perpetual fear, cycles of violence, and impunity. In that climate, how possible is it to have free, fair, open and credible elections? “If our answer is, ‘We can deal with this at a later stage’, then we have a problem,” she said.

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