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Zimbabwe's referendum: a dry-run for this year's elections?

Zimbabweans go to the polls today to vote on a new constitution. Today’s referendum is the culmination of nearly five years of political wrangling and many are seeing it as a litmus test for the presidential elections later in the year.

Just to recap, Zimbabwe’s last elections in 2008 were marred by extreme violence with over 200 people killed, 10,000 injured and 28,000 displaced from their homes. There were widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment of opposition supporters; human rights activists were regularly targeted as a wave of fear swept across the country. Violence was often state-sanctioned and for the most part conducted by supporters of President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and security forces loyal to the president. There were, however, also reports of inter-party clashes and retaliatory attacks by some opposition MDC supporters. To say those responsible for these atrocities have got away with it (so far at least) is an understatement – very few people have been held to account for the horrors of that year.

Fast forward to 2013 and sadly there are already indications that history could be repeating itself. Thankfully, we’ve not yet seen violence on the scale of 2008, but the Zimbabwean authorities appear to be doing their utmost to stifle freedom of expression, limit access to information and prevent civil society from playing an active role in these elections.

To give one particularly crude example of how this has played out recently: early in February, the office of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), a grassroots human rights monitoring organisation, was raided by police who had a warrant to search for ‘subversive material and illegal immigrants’. They seized documents, smart phones and 80 radios (more on radios later). On 20 February, ZPP was classified by the police as a 'threat to state security’.

On the evening of 7 March, ZPP Director Jestina Mukoko was at home when she was got a phone call from her lawyer. An alert had just been broadcast on state television requesting members of the public to come forward with information about Jestina’s whereabouts, as she was ‘on the run from the police’. Clearly not on the run, Jestina Mukoko voluntarily went to a police station the following morning. She was charged with a number of offences, including ‘operating a private voluntary organisation without registration’. Yet ZPP is registered under a deed of trust with the High Court, like most other human rights groups in Zimbabwe.

While Jestina was being interrogated in a police station – on International Women’s Day no less – the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced that organisations facing police investigations would be prevented from monitoring the referendum. Call me cynical, but the timing of these events appear more than coincidental.

In terms of history repeating itself, this isn’t a patch on 2008 for Jestina Mukoko. In December of that year, after months of ZPP reports criticising the election-related violence, she was abducted by an armed group, who were thought to be state security agents. She was tortured and held in secret for three weeks. She was dumped at a police station two days before Christmas, where she was arrested and charged with attempting to recruit people for military training in order to overthrow the government. It was another three months before Jestina walked free, and a further six months before the Supreme Court ordered charges against her to be dropped.

But ZPP is just one example of many. In the past few months, we have documented police raids on seven non-governmental organisations. At least five of these are groups involved in voter registration and other election-related activities. Some of them have provided local election observers in previous elections.

It’s not just activists that are being affected. On 19 February, police issued a ban on all short wave radios in Zimbabwe, in what can only be seen as a crude attempt to limit access to alternative news sources. Following the announcement, police searched the offices of Radio Dialogue in Bulawayo and seized 180 radios and the station’s manager, under section 182 of the Customs and Exercise Act.

Human rights defenders can play a critical role during this election period, monitoring and documenting human rights violations, sharing that information with a wider audience and providing support for victims of abuse. It is not hard to see why they are the targets of a crackdown. Sadly, rather than embrace this referendum as an opportunity to reinforce respect for human rights and the rule of law, the government of Zimbabwe appears to be using it as an election practice run for intimidation and suppression.

In terms of monitoring this referendum, we are calling on the Zimbabwean authorities to allow civil society organizations to observe the process without harassment and intimidation. There are reports in the media that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) could only afford to send 100 observers to monitor over 9,000 polling booths. It’s not for me to get into a numbers game with SADC. However, they are likely to be the key body providing international observers for the elections later this year, so I hope they are following closely what’s happening in Zimbabwe at the moment. Jestina Mukoko’s story should be one they are extremely familiar with.

You can support Jestina and other Zimbabwean human rights defenders: write to the SADC, and ask them to do everything in their power to make sure the upcoming election is free from violence and fear.

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