Rights group: Zimbabwe impunity fueling violence

AP News
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Posted: Mar 08, 2011 9:28 AM
Rights group: Zimbabwe impunity fueling violence

Every day in Zimbabwe, Tendai has to see the people who killed his parents more than two years ago. They live in his neighborhood and have gone unpunished.

James lives next door to one of the four people who beat his parents to death in July 2008, at the height of state-sponsored election violence in the southern African country.

Today, amid reports of renewed attacks as Zimbabwe plans for elections, both men say they are receiving death threats from their parents' killers.

"We now live in perpetual fear," Tendai told New York-based Human Rights Watch, which released a report Tuesday warning that the country faces a "crisis of impunity" that has festered for decades and only encourages the killings, torture and beatings that have been allowed to go unpunished. Police refuse to act on complaints and judges are co-opted or threatened and attacked, the report said.

Tiseke Kasambala, a senior researcher for the rights group, told reporters the climate prohibited holding the elections sought by President Robert Mugabe, the ruler for 31 years.

"If reforms are not instituted, then we say that there must be no elections in Zimbabwe," Kasambala said.

She said the president of South Africa, landlocked Zimbabwe's powerful neighbor, and other leaders in the Southern African Development Community should make that clear to Mugabe, and strongly condemn the renewed attacks and detentions.

Kasambala said the regional body's reaction made them "look bad," especially when compared the firm stand taken by the Economic Community of West African States in Ivory Coast, which has declared an opposition leader the winner of disputed elections and is demanding the incumbent step down.

Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is widely believed to have won 2008 elections against Mugabe. But pressure from some Southern African leaders compelled him to form a government of national unity with Mugabe, when international condemnation failed to end an onslaught of state violence after the poll.

At the time, Human Rights Watch documented cases showing Mugabe's 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.

Tuesday's report said government agencies including police, themselves implicated in the attacks, have failed to investigate hundreds of legal complaints filed by individuals, victims' families, rights groups and Tsvangirai's party.

"It's a painful experience knowing that our neighbors who we see every day were the perpetrators. I feel angry," said the report, quoting Tendai who, like James, is not further identified for fear of reprisals. "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."

James' father was already dead when he found his parents' bodies on June 25, 2008. But his mother clung to life long enough to identify some of the soldiers, officials and supporters of President Robert Mugabe's party who had attacked them. Police took her statement in the hospital before she died, but nothing more has been done.

Violence against opposition supporters, their families and areas known to have voted against Mugabe has increased as the opposition picks up support. Mugabe has ruled since 1980.

The most common form of torture is severe beatings on the back, buttocks and soles of the feet until the skin is ripped off. People have had electric shocks administered to their genitals at police stations, and have been raped with broomsticks and other implements. False executions also are common.

Officials in Tsvangirai's party say he and government ministers repeatedly have called in vain for police to stop political violence and arrest perpetrators.

As recently as Friday, his party reported to police several youths who allegedly beat up supporters in Harare last week, identifying them by name and an address where they gather.

Instead, it said, police were "hostile" to the victims and arrested some of them, forcing the others to go into hiding.

Human Rights Watch criticized the former opposition party for prioritizing the harmony of the delicate government over its push for justice. It criticized Tsvangirai for putting reconciliation above justice in a September speech in which he said a retributive agenda would be counterproductive.

"Reconciliation is the only solution for the country to have assured stability, peace and progress," said Tsvangirai, who himself has been beaten up and tortured by Mugabe's thugs.

In Washington last week, U.S-based Freedom Now condemned last year's arrests and torture of 12 activists accused of trumped-up charges of treason. They accused Tsvangirai of being "complicit" in the torture by remaining in the coalition with Mugabe.

Human Rights Watch called for Zimbabwe's unity government to respect its own constitution and international laws by setting up an independent commission to investigate serious human rights abuses, bring perpetrators to trial and ensure reparations for victims.

It urged the Southern African Development Community to press Zimbabwe's government on the issue. And it urged the European Union and the United States to maintain targeted travel sanctions and asset freezes against Mugabe's party and its leadership.

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Associated Press writer Angus Shaw in Harare, Zimbabwe contributed to this report.