Zimbabwe Crackdown Has Affected Hundreds, Group Says

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 3, 2007

JOHANNESBURG, May 2 -- Zimbabwean authorities have arrested, abducted and tortured hundreds of political activists in a campaign that has grown worse since the vicious beating of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in March, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

In a report based on dozens of interviews in Zimbabwe, the New York-based rights group said the international outcry over the assault on Tsvangirai did nothing to curb President Robert Mugabe's brutality. The crackdown has reached deep into opposition ranks and affected many people who have no apparent role in politics, the report said. Journalists and human rights lawyers have also been targeted.

"This is part of the widespread and systematic clampdown on all forms of activism, all forms of dissent," said Tiseke Kasambala, the report's author. Since Tsvangirai's arrest March 11, she said, "it has in fact gotten worse."

The 39-page report largely backed accounts by the opposition, including Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, which has said that more than 600 of its members were arrested or abducted in March and April, 300 were hospitalized and three were killed. Thirty people, including a party provincial spokesman arrested at his home Monday night, remain missing.

"The crackdown is intensifying," the party's spokesman, Nelson Chamisa, said from Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. "The situation is quite bad."

Chamisa, who was beaten March 11 with Tsvangirai and later that month as he attempted to leave the country for a conference, said the opposition has been left "comatose" as its members seek to avoid being abducted and assaulted. "It's very difficult for us to operate."

Zimbabwe has been in political and economic decline since 2000, when Mugabe encouraged a violent land-redistribution campaign that gave many white-owned commercial farms to poor blacks. The nation's unemployment rate is estimated at 80 percent, and its inflation rate, at 1,730 percent, is the highest in the world.

The arrest and beating of Tsvangirai and about 50 other activists provoked widespread denunciation and revived diplomatic efforts to ease Mugabe from power after 27 years.

Southern African regional leaders met in Tanzania in late March to address the crisis but issued a statement supporting Mugabe. The group appointed South African President Thabo Mbeki to oversee negotiations, which Human Rights Watch said were unlikely to resolve problems as long as opposition activists are under attack.

The report includes accounts of police assaults on people in their homes and at shopping malls and neighborhood bars. Zimbabwe's feared secret police and its youth militias, known as the Green Bombers for the color of the fatigues they often wear, are also active in the attacks, according to Human Rights Watch and opposition leaders.

Those reportedly killed include Edward Chikomba, a freelance cameraman who, according to news reports, made video clips of a bruised and battered Tsvangirai available to international journalists. CNN, the BBC and other networks aired the clips frequently, fueling the global reaction.

Human Rights Watch said it was unclear who detonated a series of gasoline bombs, mainly at police stations, in recent months, though authorities have blamed opposition activists. Kasambala, the report's author, said that might be a pretext for arrests. Tsvangirai's party has said the bomb attacks were carried out by the secret police to justify politically motivated arrests.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company