Zimbabwean police have increased threats against civic groups a week away from a referendum on a new constitution and before crucial elections to end the nation's shaky coalition later in the year, rights organizations said Saturday.
An alliance of 15 human rights, pro-democracy and labor groups said police mounted "a sustained and escalating assault" on activists to discredit their organizations ahead of polling. The state Electoral Commission announced Friday that groups under police investigation or leaders facing any charges will not be allowed to observe the referendum vote on March 16.
At least four main groups, including the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network, have had police raids on their offices this year.
The alliance said its member groups have reported growing political tensions across the country, even though the referendum vote is not being contested. All the main political parties have called for a 'Yes' vote from their supporters.
Most civic groups are facing "vague and generalized search warrants, arrests, persecution and prosecution," said the alliance.
Police on Friday said they will charge Jestina Mukoko, head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a group that monitors political intimidation and violence, for running an organization not legally registered as a private voluntary body. They also allege she smuggled into Zimbabwe cheap radio receivers capable of tuning in to stations other than those of the state broadcasting monopoly controlled by loyalists of President Robert Mugabe and mobile phones with the Global Positioning System (GPS) for "suspicious and unauthorized use" during elections across the country.
Lawyers acting for her group deny any of its activities were illegal and say it is properly registered under a deed of trust with the Zimbabwe High Court, like most other human rights groups in the country.
Amnesty International on Saturday criticized state television for airing a police wanted notice claiming Mukoko was on the run and gave telephone numbers for callers to report on her whereabouts. Mukuko was at home at the time and voluntarily handed herself over to police the next morning for questioning.
"The use of state media to publicly portray Mukoko as some kind of fugitive is a regrettable new low for the government," said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty's southern Africa director.
"It is appalling that at this critical time when Zimbabwe is in the process of adopting a new constitution which provides a stronger bill of human rights, human rights defenders are coming under systematic attack," he said.
As well as Mukuko's group, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, the election support network and another smaller organization in the second city of Bulawayo have been raided by police who seized documents, voter education materials and the solar-powered and hand cranked radio receivers destined for impoverished communities without traditional sources of information surrounding elections.
The alliance of rights groups said Saturday the continuing threats by police commanders who have openly voiced their allegiance to Mugabe were intended to portray civic groups as unpatriotic and serving the interests of Mugabe's opponents and their alleged Western backers and funders in Britain, the former colonial power, and the United States.
"Accusing them of unfounded misdemeanors is to suggest to the public the existence of a wider-ranging conspiracy against the stability of the country and to paint civil society organizations as a danger to state security," the alliance said.
Riot police on Tuesday dispersed a meeting in Harare to be addressed by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader in the coalition with Mugabe formed after the last violent and disputed elections in 2008, saying it had not be authorized under sweeping security laws.
Tsvangirai's party officials said the incident recalled partisan police conduct in previous poll campaigning routinely marred by violence and it was feared to be a foretaste of Mugabe loyalists' tactics ahead of parliamentary and presidential polls, slated around July.
Tsvangirai himself tweeted that police actions to stop that meeting "show that the leopard has not changed its colors."