JOHANNESBURG - Persistent violence by government agents and supporters in Zimbabwe is making it impossible to hold a fair presidential runoff election later this month, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
In interviews with victims, the study detailed violence against opposition supporters across the country, with the creation of "no-go zones" in rural areas surrounded by roadblocks to prevent foreign journalists and human rights workers from witnessing the abuses.
The report said Zimbabwe was suffering the worst election violence in its history, overwhelmingly perpetrated by the ruling ZANU-PF party against activists and supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in advance of the June 27 runoff vote.
Unless it is stopped, there is no chance of free and fair runoff elections, warned Human Rights Watch, a research and advocacy group based in New York.
"Time has nearly run out for Southern African Development Community and the African Union to make the necessary political interventions to end the violence and ensure a free and fair vote," the report said, calling on regional powers to abandon mediation efforts with President Robert Mugabe and instead take strong action to stop the attacks.
"If current conditions are maintained, there is no possibility of a credible, free, and fair poll," the report added.
The report found at least 2,000 documented cases of beatings or torture but concluded that because many areas were inaccessible, the actual number would be much higher.
The report came as an independent medical group in Zimbabwe, the Specialist Doctors in Zimbabwe, comprising surgeons, anesthetists, physicians and pediatricians, reported that about 2,900 victims of political violence had been treated in hospitals since elections on March 29.
Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition party, received about 48 percent of the vote in the first round, according to official figures, compared with about 43 percent for Mugabe, making a runoff necessary. The opposition insists it won in the first round.
The Rights Watch report concluded that the violence is being orchestrated by the Joint Operations Command, the country's supreme military body, which includes the chiefs of police, prison, defense, and security forces.
It said ZANU-PF had set up hundreds of base camps for interrogating, beating, and torturing MDC supporters.
Zimbabwean military officers handed out a bullet to every villager called to compulsory political meetings in April, in an ominous threat that they should not vote opposition, according to the report.
"Each villager would be given a bullet to hold in their hands, then a soldier would say, 'If you vote for the MDC in the presidential runoff election, you have seen the bullets, we have enough for each one of you, so beware,' " the report said.
A man beaten to death by members of Mugabe's party was told he was being punished because he had let neighbors listen to his radio, tuned in to a Voice of America program aired in Zimbabwe, according to the rights watch report.
"In one particularly horrifying incident, at least 12 suspected ZANU-PF supporters abducted, beat, tortured, and murdered three MDC activists on May 7," the report said. The bodies were found some days later.
In Chiweshe on May 5, six men were beaten to death and 70 men and women were tortured, including a 76-year-old woman publicly thrashed in front of assembled villagers, according to the report.