SA urged to show stronger leadership on Zim – new report

President Thabo Mbeki and the South African government have been called upon to show stronger leadership in a new report that says the current atmosphere of fear and intimidation in Zimbabwe is casting doubts about whether presidential elections scheduled for March 2008 will be free and fair.

The report – We Have Degrees in Violence – A Report on Torture and Human Rights Abuses in Zimbabwe – was published by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, the Open Society Institute and the Bellevue/NYU Programme for Survivors of Torture.

 The report, the first conducted by international health professionals, provides evidence that the Zimbabwean government is systematically using torture and violence as a political deterrent.

The report documents how victims of political violence have been tortured and subjected to human rights abuses, causing devastating health consequences. Victims have been detained under inhuman conditions and denied appropriate medical access and legal assistance.

“Members of civil society, including doctors and lawyers assisting victims of political violence, also describe being subject to harassment by government authorities. These finding raise profound concerns as to whether elections scheduled for 2008 will be free and fair,” the report said.

The report carries testimony from 24 Zimbabwean victims of torture and political violence.

“All had clear physical and psychological evidence of torture and abuse corroborating their testimony. These victims of political violence included both men and women. They were not randomly targeted, but included national and local leaders of the political opposition, community organisers and ordinary citizens.

“Zimbabweans who were arrested and detained for their political activities described being detained under filtly, inhuman conditions as well as being denied necessities such as food, water, light and blankets. This torture and political violence has devastating physical, psychological and social health consequences.

“At the time of evaluation, all 24 of the Zimbabwean victims of torture and political violence evaluated for this report continued to suffer from substantial and often debilitating physical and psychological symptoms as a result of their abuse…Victims frequently described profound fear of future torture or death as well as threats to their family.”

The report claims Zimbabwean victims of torture as well as Zimbabwean advocates in South Africa described the many problems that Zimbabwean refugees encounter upon their arrival in South Africa. These include problems obtaining refugee status or political asylum; problems attaining adequate food and shelter; difficulty getting appropriate and necessary healthcare; and ongoing fears of deportation and discrimination.

At least 459 cases of human rights violations were documented by human rights organisations beween March and May, according to Douglas Gwatidzo, a human rights activist, who said the government was targeting leaders and organisers.

“They come in the middle of the night, pick you up, beat you and leave you there. They don’t care if you die; that is one way they are beating people into submission, ” Gwatidzo said.

Dr Reginald Matchaba-Hove, who served as chairman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network until April 2007, said violence would have an effect on the outcome of the election.

“Firstly, it is a tool of intimidation. By beating up people like [MDC leader Morgan] Tsvangirai they are sending the message that no one is safe. And when words gets out into the rural areas that you are not safe, this will have enormous impact. There is already intimidation in past elections by local tribal leaders who are loyal to the government – if you don’t vote for the government party you won’t get food aid,” he said.

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