Zimbabwe: NGOs fear being targeted as violence escalates
"It's open season now on the opposition and white farmers, government label us as anti-state so we're expecting the worst," the head of a prominent Harare-based NGO told IRIN anonymously, fearing reprisals.
On Friday, reported members of the ruling ZANU-PF party firebombed offices of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the second city of Bulawayo, where prominent war veteran Cain Nkala was found strangled earlier this month. At least 14 MDC members have been arrested for Nkala's killing but have not been allowed to see their lawyers. MDC supporters torched a college owned by a prominent ZANU-PF official in retaliation.
In the last month, NGOs and civil groups have come under increasing government scrutiny. Last week information minister Jonathan Moyo said local and international NGOs would not be allowed to distribute emergency food aid that Zimbabwe has requested from foreign donors. NGOs have also been forbidden from undertaking voter education work in the run-up to next year's presidential poll.
Such groups have also effectively been banned from monitoring and observing the election. In a recent interview with the BBC, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said local monitors would be government appointees and international observers could only play a role in the election process "when invited".
Tony Reeler of the Amani Trust, an NGO that assists victims of political violence, told IRIN that events in Bulawayo at the weekend signalled a worrying shift in government's attitude to civil society. "Before we thought they would try and silence us by legal means, now government supporters go on the rampage and burn MDC offices while the police stand by and watch, we could come under a similar onslaught," he said.
One analyst told IRIN that recent events illustrated government's determination to suppress any individual or organisation perceived to be opposing it.
"Commercial farmers, the MDC, businesses, gay people, the government is at war with them all, the NGO's have every right to be worried. Most NGOs will tell you they are neutral, but there's no neutral any more, if you are not for ZANU-PF you're in the firing line," he said.
At Nkala's funeral on Sunday, President Robert Mugabe threatened to crack down on opponents, describing them as "terrorists" sponsored by the British government. In London, a British Foreign Office spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, told news agencies that any suggestion that Britain was supporting any kind of terrorism was absurd.
Britain has helped fund the Zimbabwean opposition, specifically through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), a government body set up in 1992 to support democracy around the world. A representative of the WFD told IRIN this was not the first time this organisation had been vilified by Mugabe and that such accusations were not worth responding to.
Nkala's death "was the brutal outcome of a much wider terrorist plot by internal, and external terrorist forces with plenty of funding from some commercial farmers and organisations like the Westminster Foundation, which we have established beyond doubt gets its dirty money for dirty tricks, from the British Labour Party, the Conservative Party and Liberal Party and also of course from the government of Tony Blair," Mugabe said.
At least 31 people, most of them opposition supporters, were killed in political violence before the June 2000 parliamentary election in which the MDC won 57 of the 120 contested seats. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai warned on Friday of possible civil unrest across the country after ZANU-PF militants burned down his party offices in Bulawayo.
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