08/28/2012 10:04 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

Zimbabwe's Assault on LGBTI Group Indicative of Larger, Worrisome Trend

With a constitutional referendum and historic elections looming in Zimbabwe, one might assume that those in power would seek to burnish their deficient democratic credentials. Instead, the Government of National Unity (GNU), largely dominated by President Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), has doubled down, intensifying their assault on human rights defenders and civil society writ large.

The widespread crackdown comes as no surprise to those who have followed the plight of Zimbabwe. President Mugabe and ZANU-PF have routinely resorted to thuggish violence and intimidation during the run-up to national political events, particularly since 2000. It was during this period that the newly-formed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by trade unionist and current Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, rallied voters to reject a state-sponsored constitution, handing Mugabe his first electoral defeat since he came to power in 1980.

Mugabe responded with vengeance, enacting a range of repressive pieces of legislation, including the Private Voluntary Organization (PVO) Act, which imposes onerous funding and registration restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). When existing legislation has failed to deter legitimate democratic activity, the Zimbabwe Republic Police Force (ZRP) has enthusiastically stepped to the fore, crushing dissent with impunity. Those who are critical of the status quo or dare question Mugabe's dictatorial directives are branded "enemies of the state" and "agents of regime change," thereby legitimizing the brutal tactics employed by the ZRP. A frequent target of this ire has been Zimbabwe's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) community.

Like many countries in Africa, from Uganda to Cameroon and far too many places in between, political leaders propagate patently false and dangerous statements, claiming that LGBTI people are merely a Western import, living unacceptable, profane lifestyles. Mugabe has equated homosexuality with mental illness, calling their way of life "un-African" and describing gays as "worse than pigs and dogs." Government leaders have also urged local chiefs to banish "people who support homosexuality" from their communities. Such inflammatory rhetoric bolsters the notion that LGBTI people are not only outsiders in their own communities, but somehow subhuman and unworthy of respect and dignity.

It is therefore with increasing alarm that international rights advocates have called attention to the situation facing the Gay and Lesbian Association of Zimbabwe (GALZ). In July 2012, police interrogated the current director on the spurious grounds of insulting President Mugabe, a case that dates back to May 2010 when two group members were arrested after a letter was displayed from the mayor of San Francisco that criticized Mugabe for being homophobic. The ZRP has since carried out two raids on GALZ in less than two weeks, first on August 11 when riot police interrupted a launch event for GALZ's Violations Report, which documents police harassment, arbitrary arrests, and rights violations against the LGBTI community. All told, 44 GALZ members were detained by "visibly drunk" police officers after being assaulted with "batons, sticks, and clenched fists." GALZ headquarters were subsequently raided on August 20, during which authorities seized educational materials and office equipment, including several computers. On August 24, authorities began proceedings to shut down GALZ altogether, charging a co-chairperson with running an "unregistered" organization in contravention of the PVO Act.

Frank Mugisha, Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and a Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights Award Laureate, knows all too well the telltale signs of a coordinated attack. "SMUG stands in solidarity with our colleagues in Zimbabwe," says Mr. Mugisha. "Events taking place in the country are clearly part of a larger epidemic in Africa, whereby homophobia and hatred has been spread by government officials through the use of hate speech and draconian legislation. What is worse, these actions have been taken under the guise of protecting and preserving 'African culture.' This is pure propaganda and such statements and actions on the part of the government should be condemned." Mr. Mugisha continued, "African culture calls for living together in peace and harmony. We should all work together to uphold that."

While it is encouraging that civil society has stood in solidarity with GALZ, Zimbabweans often take their cues from political leaders, and with violent repercussions. In this respect, the public silence of the MDC on this matter has been unfortunate. While bad behavior has come to be expected from ZANU-PF, citizens and outside observers often expect more from the former opposition, fairly or not. As a partner in Zimbabwe's coalition government -- tenuous as the relationship may be -- the MDC should speak out against these illegal actions committed by the ZRP, particularly if the MDC wishes to portray itself as the country's clear-cut democratic alternative.

Chesterfield Samba, Director of GALZ, recently told me, "Every person in Zimbabwe is entitled to hold opinions and impart ideas without interference. Every person in Zimbabwe has the right to assemble freely, to associate with other persons, and to belong to associations which protect their interests. It is clear that these protections do not extend to sexual minorities in the country." He continued, "The appalling actions of the police are symptomatic of the general breakdown of the rule of law in Zimbabwe."

If a country cannot adhere to and respect the rule of law, then it is not a country that can be trusted on the international stage. Similarly, if a government can be adequately judged by how it responds to the concerns -- and protects the rights -- of its most vulnerable citizens, then Zimbabwe can be considered a failure up to this point. The country's leaders would be best served if they were to uphold the rule of law, basic standards of good governance, and respect for human rights, including key provisions under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. For regardless of which party ultimately ascends to power following fresh elections, they will have to engage effectively and on solid footing with the international community, a necessity if the government wishes to advance the prospects of its beleaguered citizenry.