The campaign of terror sweeping Zimbabwe is being directly organised by a junta that took over the running of the country after Robert Mugabe’s shock election defeat in March.
Details of the organised violence are contained in a report released today by Human Rights Watch, corroborated by senior Western diplomats who describe the situation in Zimbabwe as a “military coup by stealth”.
The human-rights group and the diplomats name Zimbabwe’s effective rulers as the Joint Operations Command, a shadowy security politburo made up of military and police generals, senior intelligence officers, prison service officials and leaders of the ruling Zanu (PF) party.
The report maps a chain of command leading down from the JOC to senior officers responsible for individual regions, and the local politicians and so-called “war veterans” and Zanu (PF) youth militias who carry out much of the violence as a proxy military force
The report said that the scale of the attacks exceeds anything seen previously during Zimbabwe’s long history of electoral violence, and that for the first time militias are being armed with weapons such as AK47s, hand-guns and rifles. They have also used military transportation and even attacked from military bases.
A senior Western diplomat traced the military takeover to the days after the March 29 election, when a stunned Mr Mugabe was preparing to stand down before the generals moved in. “The generals didn’t let him go,” the diplomat said. “Afraid that Mr Mugabe’s departure would expose them to prosecution, they struck a deal guaranteeing his reelection.
“This is a military coup by stealth,” the diplomat said. “There are no tanks on people’s lawns, but the Joint Operations Command runs this country.”
The military takeover has meant an explosion in the level of violence in Zimbabwe, as well as the de facto militarisation of food distribution prompted by last week’s ban on aid agencies.
Witnesses interviewed by HRW identified numerous senior security officers who report directly to the JOC as being involved personally in the violence, suggesting they are carrying out orders from above. Police involved in the attack on American and British diplomats last week were quoted as saying that their orders came “directly from the top”. Documents leaked by disgruntled army officers name 200 of them, each assigned an area to oversee in OperationMakavhoterapapi? or Operation Where Did You Put Your Vote?, a campaign to punish those who voted for the Movement for Democratic Change, particularly in traditional Zanu (PF) strongholds, and to prevent them from voting in the June 27 presidential run-off when Mr Mugabe goes head to head with Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader.
The use of the “war veterans” and youth militias as proxy forces was intended to cover up the State’s role in the violence. But in many cases documented by HRW, military involvement was explicit. Scores of attacks in Harare and surrounding townships have been carried out by uniformed soldiers. One victim described armed soldiers going from house to house in the township of Chitungwiza searching for MDC supporters and beating them: “I did not know my assailants, but they were in army uniform and drove an army truck. They were boasting of being given a three-day assignment to ‘bring hell’ to the people.”
Army officers have been personally involved in a number of “reeducation” meetings at which local residents are forced to renounce opposition and swear allegiance to the ruling party after being beaten and tortured. Beatings at such meetings account for at least eight deaths. The Army has denied any involvement in the violence.
The extent of Mr Mugabe’s acquiescence to the terror tactics remains unclear, but the moment he agreed to stay on, the diplomat notes: “Mr Mugabe became beholden to the generals to stay in power.”
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