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Rights groups fear poll blitz in Harare

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Johannesburg - Rights groups voiced fears on Monday that the Zimbabwean authorities would launch a crackdown on rights activists ahead of a referendum and elections scheduled early next year.

The “situation of human rights defenders in Zimbabwe remains grim as their operating space can be further shrunk” in the run-up to polls, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said.

Zimbabwe is due to approve a new constitution next year, and vote in polls to end a power-sharing deal that turned sour between President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980, and his arch-rival Morgan Tsvangirai.

Rights activists still face intimidation, harassment and torture in the troubled nation, the Observatory said in Johannesburg, launching a report after a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe.

A recent police raid at a counselling centre for victims of violence shows activists are in for a rough time, said Arnold Tsunga, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), one of the partners in the NGO coalition.

Three officials of the Zimbabwean Counselling Services Unit, which offers medical and psychological assistance to victims of organised violence, were arrested last month and their office equipment and records seized.

“If you attack the prime human rights defender with impunity in such a brazen way, it shows that potential for human rights defenders to really be squeezed ahead of the election,” Tsunga told reporters.

Lobbyists cannot watch the crucial vote as closely with continued targeting, warned Tsunga.

Lawyers for Human Rights, another partner organisation that produced the report, handle around 1 500 cases of abused rights activists in Zimbabwe each year, said Tsunga.

International mediators, especially regional bloc the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which brokered the power-sharing deal, were losing steam on the Zimbabwean crisis, another commentator said.

“It would seem that SADC is fatigued, because they do not seem to be able to push the (reforms) agenda as quickly and as forcefully and as expediently as should be the case before the next election,” said Thomas Sibusiso Masuku, a former Swaziland high court judge, who was part of a probe team that examined the rights activists situation in Zimbabwe. - Sapa-AFP


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