JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – An international physicians' group said Tuesday that corruption is killing Zimbabweans and President Robert Mugabe should be investigated by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity.
The U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights told The Associated Press that the United Nations should take over Zimbabwe's health system, including its collapsed water supply, to halt the toll of unnecessary deaths from easily cured illnesses such as cholera.
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The findings and recommendations of an investigative team that visited Zimbabwe for seven days in December were published in an emergency report called "Health in Ruins — A Man-made Disaster in Zimbabwe" on Tuesday in South Africa and by former Irish President Mary Robinson at the United Nations, according to the organization's chief executive officer A. Frank Donaghue.
The report is "another wake-up call" for the world "to take urgent action to save lives and stop deaths," Donaghue said.
The report adds to growing evidence that the Mugabe government "may well be guilty of crimes against humanity," he said. The octogenarian leader has been in power since white minority rule ended in the former British colony in 1980.
Zimbabwe government spokesman George Charamba refused to comment on charges from what he called a "stupid, Western-created organization." Mugabe has blamed his country's collapse on Western sanctions and charged that Britain is plotting to recolonize the country.
There was no immediate comment from the World Heath Organization about the physicians' report.
Zimbabwe is suffering a humanitarian crisis and economic meltdown while Mugabe and the opposition argue over sharing power after disputed presidential elections.
The United Nations has said half the population faces imminent starvation, and the doctors said Mugabe's government is manipulating international aid.
"There is a lot of evidence that it (food) is being used as a political weapon," being denied to people who do not support Mugabe and his party, said the group's David Sanders, a Zimbabwean doctor and professor who now runs the public health department of South Africa's University of the Western Cape.
In an interview Monday night, Donaghue and Sanders said the deaths of a reported 2,000 people from a cholera epidemic, which broke out in August and continues despite international aid, is a fraction of the victims of government greed, incompetence and denial of the unfolding tragedy.
The World Health Organization said Tuesday that the cholera death toll in Zimbabwe had risen to 2,024 deaths and 39,806 cases reported since the outbreak began in August. It said the fatality rate of 5.1 percent there is far above the 1 percent rate that is normal in large outbreaks.
Government hospitals have shut down, after operating for months without running water or sufficient medical supplies, in large part because doctors and nurses do not earn enough to pay for transport to work amid hyperinflation, they said.
Acute shortages of everything from medication and food to fuel and electricity has devastated basic services.
Sanders blamed the cholera on a government takeover of the water system from local councils that the opposition won in March elections.
He said the report quotes human rights groups that have documented thousands of cases of torture of political opponents committed by the army, police, intelligence agents and militia of Mugabe's party.
Hospital closures in November left main cities without government facilities for pregnant women, after maternal mortality already had risen from 168 women for every 100,000 child births in 1990 to 1,100 deaths in 2005, he said.
"Who knows what it is now?" Donaghue said. "The numbers are growing in a silent tragedy that is not being recorded."
As an example of corruption killing people, Sanders said the group's investigators received corroborating reports from donors that officials of Mugabe's party "plundered" $7.3 million of $11 million from the Global Fund for Aids that was only returned in November amid international outrage.
Donaghue, who runs the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based rights group, said he hopes its report "will save lives, if people listen."
The report urges the U.N. to act under its charter to protect people from state-sanctioned atrocities. And it says Mugabe and his government should be investigated by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Donaghue said the report recommends that the European Union and United States continue to impose targeted sanctions that include travel bans and asset freezes on Mugabe's ruling clique until Mugabe cedes power.