HARARE, Zimbabwe – Elections in Zimbabwe are still months away, but already President Robert Mugabe's party is intimidating its opponents and threatening violence, human rights and pro-democracy groups say.
Witnesses say Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has begun deploying youth militia groups in some of its strongholds. A young mother in the Harare township of Mbare said militants of a pro-Mugabe youth group known as Chipangano, or "the brotherhood" in local slang, have started door-to-door visits in the neighborhood and told residents to attend night meetings where names and identity particulars of participants were written down.
"They are watching me every day," she said, refusing to give her name because she feared violent retribution.
If she doesn't go to the meetings with family members and friends her absence will be noted down on another list of suspected Mugabe opponents, she said.
Mugabe party officials say the logging of names is merely part of regular campaigning to keep supporters up to date with the party's activities in the runup to polling.
Rugare Gumbo, the party's spokesman, denied a campaign of intimidation was under way. He has accused Mugabe's opponents of making "sensational" allegations to garner sympathy in the face of electoral defeat.
"We have become more and more aware of their machinations," he said.
The independent Zimbabwe Peace Project, which monitors political intimidation and violence, reported in its latest bulletin Mugabe militants are also marking with stickers the homes of their supporters and new converts.
"There is no doubt those with stickers would be used to identify people (without them) who would then be victimized before and after elections," the group said.
Mugabe's party insists its members are free to display party loyalty and regalia during election campaigning, a common practice in most countries. But independent campaign monitors have reported rival fliers and posters being torn down and destroyed, mostly by militant youth groups.
Monitors representing both local and foreign rights groups say there is now burgeoning fear because Zimbabwe's elections have been marred by violence and alleged vote rigging since 2000, mainly by Mugabe's party.
Actual physical violence this time around has been comparatively limited so far but there has been an increase in police action against groups and individuals seen as Mugabe opponents, including the arrests on March 17 of Beatrice Mtetwa, Zimbabwe's most prominent human rights lawyer, and four senior staffers of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe's main rival.
Mugabe is to announce an election date in consultation with the coalition partners, but it is bogged down in technicalities. Under the constitution, new elections must be held within 90 days of June 29, when the term of the current parliament expires and the body is automatically dissolved. Mugabe wants the poll as soon as possible. Tsvangirai says it would be late July at the earliest but it could come as late as September.
Mtetwa, held in jail for eight days, appeared briefly in a Harare court Wednesday on charges of obstructing justice that carry a penalty of a fine or up to two years imprisonment. Prosecutors said they were not ready to go to trial and the hearing was put off to Monday. She denies the charges and says she only demanded to see a police search warrant when officers combed through offices of Tsvangirai's communications unit searching for alleged subversive materials and then seized equipment and documents. She said her arrest was a ploy to intimidate democracy activists ahead of new elections.
The police force is generally loyal to Mugabe.
"There will be many more arrests to follow as we near elections. The police were all out to get me," said Mtetwa after her release on bail on March 25. "They wanted me to feel their might and power."
Legal experts dismiss the charges against Mtetwa as spurious, but right groups also warn that more such arrests can be expected.
"We will see more of these kinds of tactics to criminalize key activists. It is a ZANU-PF strategy they are unlikely to stop," said McDonald Lewanika, director of Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition, an alliance of independent rights and civic groups. Lewanika's alliance also alleged that villagers where harvests had failed were made to take part in activities of Mugabe's party in order to receive food aid and school places for their children.
Underscoring how security forces operate with impunity, the African Union's Commission on Human and People's Rights on March 23 said Gabriel Shumba, a well-known human rights lawyer, was arrested in Zimbabwe in 2003 while meeting with a client and was then tortured. Police and intelligence agents threatened Shumba with death, and subjected him to electric shocks, the commission reported, adding that Shumba was doused in chemicals and became incontinent, he vomited blood and was forced to drink his vomit. It said Zimbabwe failed to open an official investigation into Shumba's "torture and trauma" and that it should now do so and prosecute those responsible.
For a decade, rights groups have campaigned to bring to justice perpetrators of political killings, torture, rape, assault, death threats, the destruction of homes and the looting of livestock and property surrounding a series of past elections. At least five groups belonging to the alliance have been targeted this year, with several activists arrested and alleged to have broken a range of security and criminal laws. None has yet been convicted.
Lewanika said police and other security services apparently intend to "disable groups that have a clear presence on the ground" which will leave communities vulnerable to threats of a return to the violence seen before and after the 2008 polls.
"This could have a huge and telling impact on voting. At this stage, we think there will be rampant fear affecting the vote," he said.
Mugabe, 89, led the nation to independence from colonial-era rule in 1980 and ruled virtually unchallenged until Tsvangirai, 60, founded his urban and labor based opposition Movement for Democratic Change in 1997. Mugabe's party suffered setbacks at polls that followed and in 2000 he ordered the often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms crippling the agriculture-based economy of the former regional breadbasket.
Mugabe said he was correcting colonial imbalances in land ownership by the descendants of British and South African settlers so as to hand over farms to impoverished black Zimbabweans. But most prime farms went to his party elite and loyalists and many still lie idle.
The nation now depends on food imports and the United Nations estimates that 1.5 million Zimbabweans are currently in need of emergency food handouts.