Rights groups on Tuesday said police in Zimbabwe have intensified a clampdown on civil society organizations and democracy campaigners ahead of a referendum on a new constitution and crucial elections to end the nation's shaky coalition government dominated by President Robert Mugabe's party.
Crisis in Zimbabwe, an alliance of rights groups, said police raided the offices of one of its member organizations on Monday and seized files on political violence, funding details, DVD display materials, mobile phones and other equipment. Officials of the widely respected Zimbabwe Peace Project were accused of illegal importation of goods and "possessing articles for criminal use."
No one was arrested. The officials deny any wrongdoing.
The search warrant for the peace project's offices in suburban southern Harare said the detectives were looking for "subversive material, documents, gadgets, recordings and illegal immigrants."
The police suspected the project had employed an immigrant staff member without a work permit and also smuggled unspecified goods into the country without paying customs duty, Crisis in Zimbabwe said. Police said they would study the items they had seized.
Crisis in Zimbabwe said Tuesday that Mugabe party hardliners and loyalists were still trying to scuttle democratic reforms by closing in on rights campaigners.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Association director Okay Machisa was arrested on Jan. 14 on fraud and forgery charges involving possession of unauthorized election materials. Two other members of his staff were also detained on similar charges. ZimRights, one of Zimbabwe's main rights groups, routinely monitors political violence, intimidation and voting practices.
The Heal Zimbabwe Trust, a sister group, described the continued persecution of human rights defenders as "clearly meant to daunt and instill fear" in civil society activists despite proposed reforms in the new constitution that call for impartiality by police and security officials.
The clampdown on rights leaders "then raises concerns how safe ordinary citizens are in the face of upcoming elections," the trust said.
The 160-page draft constitution is set to be put to the vote in a referendum as early as April, followed by presidential and parliament polls possibly three months later.
On Wednesday, Zimbabwe marks the fourth anniversary of the formation of the coalition between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in 2009. The power sharing deal was brokered by regional leaders after disputed and violent elections in 2008.