New evidence of alleged attacks on opposition supporters in Zimbabwe has been passed to the Guardian by activists who say they are being subjected to systematic violence, intimidation and sexual abuse in the run-up to elections in March. In one case, a woman who chaired a constituency group said she was covered in paraffin and set alight. She is now in hiding, but has agreed to have her photograph published to highlight the situation.
Supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party, say they have been targeted by youth militia groups sympathetic to Robert Mugabe's ruling party, Zanu-PF. Photographs given to the Guardian, MDC officials say, show evidence of intimidation and violence against local party activists, including systematic arrests and beatings of women. The Guardian has passed the pictures to Amnesty International.
A Zimbabwe government spokesman hung up the phone when asked to comment on allegations of torture by youth militia, police and other state agents. The government has previously denied torturing its critics.
Lawyers, doctors and Zimbabwean exiles involved in the asylum process in the U.K. also claim that the Home Office is ignoring prima facie cases of torture and repatriating exiles who will face further maltreatment on their return.
The evidence comes as a high level delegation of diplomats from South Africa, Botswana and Lesotho prepares to visit Zimbabwe, possibly this week. They hope to establish whether conditions laid down by the Southern African Development Community for a free and fair election have been met. The SADC benchmarks, set out last year in Mauritius, state that political tolerance, freedom of association and full participation of all citizens are prerequisites.
Evidence of violence and intimidation was passed to the Guardian by an activist who has spent the last year documenting instances of abuse by the police and Zanu-PF youth militia. The activist photographed Tabeth Shoniwa, the MDC chair of Ward 5, in Epworth, southeast Harare, a few days after she had been doused in paraffin and set alight. Her crime was to have attended the high court in Harare on Oct. 15, 2004, the day the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was acquitted of treason. Shoniwa celebrated outside the court with other MDC supporters and in the evening Zanu sympathizers visited her home.
"A group of Zanu-PF youth who terrorize people followed her to her home," the activist told the Guardian. "They called her out of her home and threw paraffin on her body and set her alight. She jumped into a well to put out the flames. There were other people there targeted and beaten. One man I saw had his face swollen beyond recognition, and another had his eardrums damaged by the beating he received."
The MDC claims the country's draconian laws on freedom of association are being routinely used to intimidate the opposition. In one recent incident, 25 people, including four women, were arrested for attending the funeral of an opposition politician, the source said. The women were beaten across the back and legs, and then taken to the hospital, where they were put under police guard, preventing the activist from documenting their injuries.
Evidence of the abuse and torture of political opponents has also surfaced in the U.K., where lawyers and doctors working within the asylum system claim the British government is repatriating torture victims because of a culture of "disbelief." In November, the Home Office announced it was overturning its policy, adopted in 2002, of not repatriating Zimbabweans whose asylum applications had failed. The earlier policy was based on compelling evidence of state torture.
According to one doctor working with asylum applicants, the Home Office has rejected detailed medical evidence of torture in refusing asylum to many Zimbabweans. More than 10 Zimbabweans have already been returned to Harare, and scores face deportation in the coming weeks.
One victim was allegedly told it had been "foolhardy" to support the MDC, and Home Office adjudicators have in some cases advised victims to return to Zimbabwe and "seek protection from the police" when in many cases police were the perpetrators of the abuse.
The doctor, who declined to be named for fear he will lose access to patients, said Zimbabweans were among the top three nationalities presenting themselves to him with injuries consistent with torture. "I have done this for eight years, and in the past four years Zimbabwe has become one of the top three or four torture-producing countries," he told the Guardian.
"In the past four years the cases of Zimbabwean torture have risen exponentially, both in terms of numbers and in severity. It appears that rape and sexual abuse have become systematic. I do not see how, in good conscience, the Home Office can send these traumatized people back to the hands of their torturers."
Margaret Finch, a Birmingham lawyer with experience of Zimbabwe, said the asylum system was ignoring evidence of torture and abuse. "The Home Office officials often give subjective and questionable judgments. In several cases accepted facts of physical and sexual assault by government agents were deemed to be not of a political nature. It is inconceivable. I would like to see a return to the policy of not repatriating Zimbabweans. Nothing has improved in Zimbabwe; things have only got worse. What justification can there possibly be for lifting the ban? Everybody is infected by a culture of disbelief."
A Home Office spokeswoman said the change in policy was prompted by an increase in unfounded asylum claims from Zimbabwe, but genuine refugees, including opposition politicians, would be protected. "This change in asylum policy is entirely about operating a firm and fair asylum system. It does not reflect any change in the government's categorical opposition to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. "We will continue, bilaterally and with our international partners, to push the government of Zimbabwe to end human rights abuses and restore democracy so all Zimbabweans can in time return safely to build a prosperous and stable country."