Govt dismisses rights body's claims as 'lies'

Zimbabwe's government has dismissed claims by the rights group, Amnesty International (AI), that free participation of eligible voters in the 31 March poll is impossible.

"It is a complete lie," said government spokesman George Charamba. Describing Amnesty International as a "political player" in the electoral process, he questioned the organisation's neutrality. "We know that Amnesty International is at the heart of organising residual opposition currently in South Africa - holding demonstrations against the [Zimbabwean] government at the Beit Bridge border."

On Wednesday the human rights group released a report containing evidence of alleged government intimidation, including the arbitrary arrest of opposition candidates and supporters, manipulation of food distribution for political purposes, and severe restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression.

"The climate of intimidation and harassment in which the elections are planned is a serious matter for international concern," Kolawole Olaniyan, director of AI's African programme, claimed in a statement.

According to AI, opposition supporters reported that they had been tortured and their homes razed in the provinces of Manicaland and Matabeleland South. The human rights group also alleged that the police were using the controversial Public Order and Security Act to hinder opposition campaigning activities in the run-up to the elections.

"Amnesty is making such allegations that even the MDC [opposition Movement for Democratic Change] has not made. The police commissioner is holding briefings [on the siutation] twice a week," Charamba countered.

The rights group alleged that the government's Grain Marketing Board (GMB) was manipulating the distribution of food. Earlier this year an AI team interviewed people in the southern provinces of Masvingo and Manicaland, who all reported that MDC supporters had difficulty accessing maize.

"The GMB has come under fire [from the Zimbabwean government] for not distributing enough food. We have actually taken it up and are going to ensure that everyone has access to food," Charamba said.

The last two elections in Zimbabwe were marred by violence and intimidation, observers have said.

For the full AI report go to: http://amnesty-news.c.topica.com/