May 8, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 39
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Zimbabwe election violence troubles human rights groups

Angus Shaw

HARARE, Zimbabwe — International rights and aid groups expressed alarm about political violence in Zimbabwe last week as the government and ruling party — if not the opposition — prepared for a presidential runoff.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement last Friday that attacks on the opposition by the ruling party, its allied militant groups and the army since the first round of presidential voting March 29 made a free and fair runoff “a tragic joke.” The U.N. children’s agency said the violence was hurting the most vulnerable Zimbabweans.

Earlier last Friday, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission released results from the March 29 presidential election that showed opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai winning the most votes, but not the simple majority needed to avoid a runoff with President Robert Mugabe, the second-place finisher. The opposition rejected the results as fraudulent.

Tsvangirai’s deputy in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Tendai Biti, told reporters in Johannesburg in neighboring South Africa that the only way out of the impasse was a power-sharing government led by Tsvangirai, but with no role for Mugabe.

Acknowledging that skipping a second round could result in another term for Mugabe, Biti would not, as party leaders have done before, categorically rule out participating in a runoff. But he said there could not be one “for the simple and good reasons that that country is burning” amid violence and an economic collapse from rampant inflation.

Mugabe’s party said he would run in a second round, for which no date has been set. Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said the constitution requires a second round no sooner than 21 days from the announcement of the results, and no later than a year.

Since the first found, New York-based Human Rights Watch said, “the ruling ZANU-PF party, the army and so-called war veterans have conducted a brutal state-sponsored campaign of violence, torture and intimidation against [opposition] activists and supporters.” It added other issues, including limits on the opposition’s access to the media and questions about the impartiality of electoral officials have not been addressed.

“The ruling party’s bloody crackdown on the opposition makes a free and fair runoff vote a tragic joke,” Georgette Gagnon, Human Rights Watch’s Africa director, said in the statement. “The violence must stop and an impartial process be put in place before any new vote is held.”

In its own statement, UNICEF said there were growing reports of children fleeing their homes with their families as a result of political violence, and that aid groups were finding it increasingly difficult to operate.

“We need to ensure an open and safe space for reaching those in need, now more than ever,” UNICEF’s representative in Zimbabwe, Dr. Festo Kavishe, said in the statement. “To see their suffering increase as a result of the current political tension, through violence or displacement or being unable to receive the aid that is planned and paid for, is a violation of child rights and contrary to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

Mugabe’s officials have denied fomenting political violence, instead accusing the opposition of being behind the unrest. But independent reports indicate the MDC, up against a ruling party that can call on the army and armed militants, was too weak to run a political campaign — let alone orchestrate violence.

The opposition’s top leaders, including Biti and Tsvangirai, have been staying out of Zimbabwe for fear of arrest.

Mugabe, 84, was hailed at independence in 1980 for promoting racial reconciliation and bringing education and health care to the black majority. But in recent years he has been accused of holding onto power through elections that independent observers say were marred by fraud, intimidation and rigging.

This year, the main campaign issue for many had been the economic ruin of what had once been a regional breadbasket.

The collapse of the agriculture-based economy has been linked to a land reform campaign Mugabe launched in 2000 that saw the often-violent seizure of farmland from whites. Mugabe claimed the program was to benefit poor blacks, but much of the land was handed over to his cronies.

(Associated Press)

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