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Zimbabwe opposition seeks support at U.N.
Mithre J. Sandrasagra, Inter Press Servive (IPS)
April 25, 2007

UNITED NATIONS - A group of Zimbabwean citizens -- among them activists, lawyers, journalists and leaders of the democratic opposition -- were at the U.N. Wednesday to shine an international light on the brutal government crackdown they have suffered.

They provided a first-hand account of torture and arbitrary detention of activists and innocent bystanders perpetrated by the police with the backing of President Robert Mugabe.

"Riot police officers told us to put our phones on the ground and then they started to beat us," said Grace Kwinjeh, speaking at a press briefing about events that occurred during a prayer meeting organised on Mar. 11 by Christian Alliance, a coalition of churches in Zimbabwe.

"They had people whom they had specifically targeted," said Kwinjeh, who serves as deputy secretary for international relations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the Zimbabwean opposition party led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

"They called people by name," Kwinjeh said. "Morgan Tsvangirai, what do you do?" they asked before beating him.

Seventy-two hours later, following High Court orders to either release the activists or charge them, Kwinjeh and others were released, but not before one of their number was shot and killed.

Kwinjeh was one of only two activists given permission to leave the country to seek medical treatment. She was allowed to leave for six weeks, but was arrested again at the airport the next time she tried to travel.

The police assault on the activists is part of the ongoing crackdown by Mugabe's government against critics, which has gathered pace as economic hardships worsen.

The government has banned rallies and demonstrations in Harare, and Mugabe has given police the right to use force against opponents engaging in protests.

The 83-year-old leader, who has held power since 1980, congratulated police for curbing the "criminal tendencies" of the opposition party at Independence Day celebrations last week.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has expressed its concern at the growing number of activists being treated for injuries inflicted at the hands of the police.

Last week the regime expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from the country and is imposing restrictions on all remaining Zimbabwean non-governmental organisations, choking off humanitarian aid to the beleaguered population.

Zimbabweans are struggling to survive in a country where the inflation rate has exceeded 2,000 percent, there is widespread unemployment and shortages of food and other basic goods -- evidence of economic decline ascribed to government mismanagement.

According to the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa's latest economic report on the continent, only one country -- Zimbabwe -- recorded a negative growth rate in 2006.

"We are trying to meet with as many delegations as possible while in New York to build support," said Kwinjeh's lawyer, Otto Saki, acting director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

So far, they have arranged meetings with the delegations of Senegal and Rwanda.

Asked whether the group would try to meet with the representatives from China and South Africa, who have previously supported Mugabe at the U.N., Saki told IPS: "They have not been forthcoming."

The European Union imposed targeted sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2002, and the United State in 2003, in response to human rights violations and allegations of rigged parliamentary and presidential elections in 2000 and 2002.

Saki said that he and Kwinjeh were especially seeking support from African delegations because the sanctions by the United States and EU had resulted in weakened support from within the region.

A special summit of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) at the end of March reaffirmed their solidarity with Mugabe as the bloc appealed for sanctions against Zimbabwe to be lifted.

Mugabe blames Zimbabwe's economic woes on Western nations, who he accuses of undermining the Southern African country in response to a controversial farm redistribution programme, ostensibly aimed at giving property to landless, black Zimbabweans.

"The greatest threat to the existence of human beings and human rights defenders has become the institutions that we have," Saki said. "It has become the police, it has become the law enforcement agencies, it has become our central intelligence organs, who have gone out of their way to beat up, maim, kill, torture and carry out abductions."

"Court orders are torn up right in front of you," Saki said.

"The torture continues beyond the events of the 11th of March," stressed Tawanda Mutasah, executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, emphasising the need for international action.

The initiative is under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, a U.S.-based NGO that champions democracy and human rights globally.

Mutasah applauded the African leaders who have attempted to address the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. Specifically, he pointed out that Ghana's President John Agyekum Kufuor has said that he is embarrassed by the human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, Zimbabwe's neighbour, has likened Zimbabwe to a sinking Titanic, Mutasah said, and President Festus Mogae of Botswana has also indicated his concern about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

SADC has appointed South African President Thabo Mbeki to mediate in the political crisis in Zimbabwe. The South African leader has only a year in which to help prepare the ground for free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections in 2008, which Mugabe has said he will contest.

Following the arrests and assault on senior members of the MDC, British UN Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry asked for the briefing of the Security Council.

Since the Mar. 11 incidents, 600 more activists have been abducted, according to Kwinjeh and Saki.

Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa's U.N. Ambassador, speaking as President of the Security Council, initially said he would not permit the briefing on the grounds that the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe "is not a matter threatening international peace and security" -- the council's mandate.

Finally, in late March, South Africa reluctantly agreed to convene the briefing on the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe.

Kumalo stressed to reporters that the problem in Zimbabwe is a regional one, and as such Zimbabwe's neighbours are doing all they can to address the situation.

"The Southern African efforts on Zimbabwe must not shut out international concern and responsibility," Mutasah said Wednesday.

Over the past seven years since the crisis broke out in February 2000, there have been numerous efforts that SADC has engaged in related to Zimbabwe that have "not borne success," he stressed, "The U.N. has a responsibility to protect citizens who are suffering state terror in Zimbabwe and that responsibility should not be ousted by the efforts that SADC is involved with, they should be complementary efforts."

We are concerned that what has been happening in Pretoria is "not only quiet diplomacy," but also "active solidarity" with Mugabe's regime. "South Africa has actually helped embolden and prop up the regime in Harare," Mutasah stressed.

Among opposition groups in Zimbabwe there is broad support for the new U.N. Human Rights Council and the Security Council to play a role, according to Mutasah, and for the international community to encourage South Africa to play a greater role.

"Zimbabwe should not be blocked out of the international agenda," Mutasah stressed.

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