JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwe uses laws and beatings by security forces to suppress human rights activists in the southern African nation ahead of elections planned for next year, according to a report released Monday.
The report by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders comes as President Robert Mugabe is pushing for constitutional amendments that will allow for elections to end his ZANU-PF party's uneasy coalition government with the nation's main opposition party. That has some worried that Zimbabwe could experience the same repression and violence seen in its 2008 election, in which at least 163 people were killed and some 5,000 were tortured or beaten.
"These stories paint a very, very gloomy picture about the situation of human rights defenders in Zimbabwe," said Thomas Sibusiso Masuku, a former high court judge in Swaziland who contributed to the report.
The report highlights the struggles of several activists in Zimbabwe, mostly targeted by security forces and allegedly arrested for flimsy causes. One activist was detained for weeks and questioned about her work after police took her into custody saying her car was allegedly near the scene of a killing, according to the report. Another activist who was investigating abuses around Zimbabwe's diamond region was repeatedly harassed, it said.
A third activist told investigators that security forces abducted her from her home in 2008 while she was in pajamas. The activist said men repeatedly questioned her about other activists while beating the soles of her feet to the point she suffered from internal bleeding, according to the report. Days later, the report said that security forces took her to a police station. They refused to allow her to be admitted to a hospital, though she received some medical care.
Officials "took her back to prison, with the intravenous tubes dangling from her body," the report said.
Those not beaten often find themselves at the mercy of laws in Zimbabwe that make it difficult to hold opposition meetings or publish critical articles, according to the report. It listed several circumstances where protesters found themselves attacked by riot police while peacefully demonstrating.
Mugabe and ZANU-PF have ruled Zimbabwe since the country gained independence in 1980. But his land reform policies that have laid waste to the country's once-thriving agricultural sector and he has resorted to repression to hold on to power. After the 2008 election, Human Rights Watch accused the ruling party and its allies of involvement in the election killings.
Zimbabwe's government has issued blanket denials of human rights abuses in the past. Rugare Gumbo, a ZANU-PF spokesman, dismissed the report as "nonsense."
"We know all these reports are all sponsored by the West," Gumbo said Monday. "They are preparing in the minds of the international community that when we have elections and ZANU-PF wins, to say they were not free and fair."
He added: "Zimbabwe is a peaceful country and there is no violence."
Officials with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change could not be immediately reached for comment Monday.
While acknowledging that the situation in Zimbabwe is "unlikely to improve in the near future," officials with the group who spoke to journalists Monday in Johannesburg repeatedly declined to specifically say Mugabe needed to leave office to allow for change. However, Arnold Tsunga, a past president of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, said a "change in the system of government" might be needed to end the apparent immunity from prosecution those who attack activists enjoy.
"These evil people who attack human rights defenders will have their backs broken ... only if they are not allowed to destroy all the evidence," Tsunga said. "We need to break the cycle of impunity if the country is to move forward."
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is part of a French organization called the International Federation for Human Rights, an umbrella rights group based in Paris.
Associated Press writer Gillian Gotora in Harare, Zimbabwe, contributed to this report.