As Zimbabwe election nears, intimidation of Mugabe opponents ramps up

April 4, 2013 at 10:43 am Leave a comment

By Associated Press

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Elections in Zimbabwe are still months away, but already
President Robert Mugabe’s party is intimidating its opponents and
threatening violence, human rights and pro-democracy groups say.

Witnesses say Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has begun deploying youth militia
groups in some of its strongholds. A young mother in the Harare township of
Mbare said militants of a pro-Mugabe youth group known as Chipangano, or
“the brotherhood” in local slang, have started door-to-door visits in the
neighborhood and told residents to attend night meetings where names and
identity particulars of participants were written down.

“They are watching me every day,” she said, refusing to give her name
because she feared violent retribution.

If she doesn’t go to the meetings with family members and friends her
absence will be noted down on another list of suspected Mugabe opponents,
she said.

Mugabe party officials say the logging of names is merely part of regular
campaigning to keep supporters up to date with the party’s activities in the
runup to polling.

Rugare Gumbo, the party’s spokesman, denied a campaign of intimidation was
under way. He has accused Mugabe’s opponents of making “sensational”
allegations to garner sympathy in the face of electoral defeat.

“We have become more and more aware of their machinations,” he said.

The independent Zimbabwe Peace Project, which monitors political
intimidation and violence, reported in its latest bulletin Mugabe militants
are also marking with stickers the homes of their supporters and new

“There is no doubt those with stickers would be used to identify people
(without them) who would then be victimized before and after elections,” the
group said.

Mugabe’s party insists its members are free to display party loyalty and
regalia during election campaigning, a common practice in most countries.
But independent campaign monitors have reported rival fliers and posters
being torn down and destroyed, mostly by militant youth groups.

Monitors representing both local and foreign rights groups say there is now
burgeoning fear because Zimbabwe’s elections have been marred by violence
and alleged vote rigging since 2000, mainly by Mugabe’s party.

Actual physical violence this time around has been comparatively limited so
far but there has been an increase in police action against groups and
individuals seen as Mugabe opponents, including the arrests on March 17 of
Beatrice Mtetwa, Zimbabwe’s most prominent human rights lawyer, and four
senior staffers of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s main rival.

Mugabe is to announce an election date in consultation with the coalition
partners, but it is bogged down in technicalities. Under the constitution,
new elections must be held within 90 days of June 29, when the term of the
current parliament expires and the body is automatically dissolved. Mugabe
wants the poll as soon as possible. Tsvangirai says it would be late July at
the earliest but it could come as late as September.

Mtetwa, held in jail for eight days, appeared briefly in a Harare court
Wednesday on charges of obstructing justice that carry a penalty of a fine
or up to two years imprisonment. Prosecutors said they were not ready to go
to trial and the hearing was put off to Monday. She denies the charges and
says she only demanded to see a police search warrant when officers combed
through offices of Tsvangirai’s communications unit searching for alleged
subversive materials and then seized equipment and documents. She said her
arrest was a ploy to intimidate democracy activists ahead of new elections.

The police force is generally loyal to Mugabe.

“There will be many more arrests to follow as we near elections. The police
were all out to get me,” said Mtetwa after her release on bail on March 25.
“They wanted me to feel their might and power.”

Legal experts dismiss the charges against Mtetwa as spurious, but right
groups also warn that more such arrests can be expected.

“We will see more of these kinds of tactics to criminalize key activists. It
is a ZANU-PF strategy they are unlikely to stop,” said McDonald Lewanika,
director of Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition, an alliance of independent rights and
civic groups. Lewanika’s alliance also alleged that villagers where harvests
had failed were made to take part in activities of Mugabe’s party in order
to receive food aid and school places for their children.

Underscoring how security forces operate with impunity, the African Union’s
Commission on Human and People’s Rights on March 23 said Gabriel Shumba, a
well-known human rights lawyer, was arrested in Zimbabwe in 2003 while
meeting with a client and was then tortured. Police and intelligence agents
threatened Shumba with death, and subjected him to electric shocks, the
commission reported, adding that Shumba was doused in chemicals and became
incontinent, he vomited blood and was forced to drink his vomit. It said
Zimbabwe failed to open an official investigation into Shumba’s “torture and
trauma” and that it should now do so and prosecute those responsible.

For a decade, rights groups have campaigned to bring to justice perpetrators
of political killings, torture, rape, assault, death threats, the
destruction of homes and the looting of livestock and property surrounding a
series of past elections. At least five groups belonging to the alliance
have been targeted this year, with several activists arrested and alleged to
have broken a range of security and criminal laws. None has yet been

Lewanika said police and other security services apparently intend to
“disable groups that have a clear presence on the ground” which will leave
communities vulnerable to threats of a return to the violence seen before
and after the 2008 polls.

“This could have a huge and telling impact on voting. At this stage, we
think there will be rampant fear affecting the vote,” he said.

Mugabe, 89, led the nation to independence from colonial-era rule in 1980
and ruled virtually unchallenged until Tsvangirai, 60, founded his urban and
labor based opposition Movement for Democratic Change in 1997. Mugabe’s
party suffered setbacks at polls that followed and in 2000 he ordered the
often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms
crippling the agriculture-based economy of the former regional breadbasket.

Mugabe said he was correcting colonial imbalances in land ownership by the
descendants of British and South African settlers so as to hand over farms
to impoverished black Zimbabweans. But most prime farms went to his party
elite and loyalists and many still lie idle.

The nation now depends on food imports and the United Nations estimates that
1.5 million Zimbabweans are currently in need of emergency food handouts.


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