HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's official election body said Wednesday it will not back down on its ban preventing a leading human rights group from monitoring a referendum Saturday on a new constitution.
Zimbabwe Human Rights Association is facing charges related to alleged electoral offenses and will not be cleared to observe the referendum, said the election commission's acting head Joyce Kazembe. Officials with the group, also known as ZimRights, have been accused of the illegal possession of voter registration forms and fraud in obtaining them. The group denies any wrongdoing.
Most independent civic groups say they will boycott vote monitoring Saturday if any activists are barred access to observe polling.
Police loyal to President Robert Mugabe have intensified raids and arrests targeting activist groups in recent weeks and have seized from offices documents and equipment, including cheap radio receivers that can tune in to stations not controlled by Mugabe's local broadcasting monopoly.
Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba said the government was investigating what he called the recent illegal importation of the cheap radio receivers, according to Wednesday reports from the state Herald newspaper, run by Mugabe loyalists. Charamba said the devices were imported with the assistance of diplomats he did not identify. The hand-cranked radios, also capable of sending data on 3G mobile phone networks, are British made.
Charamba said the foreign ministry in Harare planned to summon the head of the embassy concerned but did not elaborate.
"We are also investigating whether it has such a mandate within its terms of reference to engage in such work," Charamba said, according to The Herald.
British officials said Ambassador Deborah Bronnert was not summoned to Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengwegwi's office by late Wednesday.
The Herald alleged the radios were distributed to Western-backed rights and pro-democracy groups plotting for "regime change" against Mugabe's party. Mugabe led the nation to independence from Britain in 1980 but was forced by regional leaders to join a coalition government with the former opposition leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, after the last violent and disputed elections in 2008.
Western nations have imposed banking, business and travel restrictions on Mugabe and his party leaders, alleging their involvement in a decade of human rights violations and political repression.
Charamba described the radios as a gadget designed to subvert electoral processes and its importers had "a sinister intention to suggest to the world that the government of Zimbabwe is so absurd as to stop the distribution of radios" at election time.
Outlining concerns about the device, The Herald said U.S. movie actor Tom Hanks was a goodwill ambassador for the British firm making it and attributed to him remarks that had the technology been available in the Cold War it could have ended Soviet repression and "brought the Soviet Union to its knees" long before its eventual collapse.
After independence in 1980, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party maintained close ties with Soviet leaders.
The Herald claimed Hanks lent his name to supporting the radios without batteries, costing about $30, after he said he "immediately saw the impact it could have on the impoverished people in Africa and the world."
Associated Press reporter Gillian Gotora in Harare contributed this report