UN human rights chief urges new Zimbabwean government to restore rule of law, provide justice for victims

GENEVA - The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Thursday she hoped the establishment of Zimbabwe's new Government of National Unity would result in an immediate effort to restore the rule of law, and expressed continuing concern over the disappearance of opposition officials, the reported use of torture to extract false confessions and infringements of the independence of the judiciary.

"The long drawn-out process to reach a political settlement was marked by the perpetration of serious human rights violations and caused untold damage to the rule of law in Zimbabwe," Pillay said. "All eyes will be on this new government to see if it can undo that damage."

"The pattern of enforced disappearances and unlawful arrests in recent months -- for which the government has acknowledged some responsibility -- spread fear among opposition officials and their supporters as well as human rights activists and the independent media," Pillay said, adding that "in cases where the accused were later produced in court, the police often failed to respect or enforce court orders."

The High Commisssioner noted that in the cases of the well-known human rights activist Jestina Mukoko and journalist Shadreck Anderson Manyere, as well as those of members of the opposition, undue pressure had been put on the judiciary to keep them in custody. "This is a serious infringement on the independence of the judiciary," she said, "and it is particularly disturbing in cases where the courts had already ordered medical examinations and treatment for people who reported they had been tortured."

Pillay also expressed concern over the politicization of the police and their failure to undertake credible investigations and arrests of individuals alleged to have committed serious human rights violations during the election violence in June and July. These include hundreds of cases of alleged summary executions, torture and sexual violence, including rape, the great majority of which are believed to have been carried out by supporters of Zanu-PF. "The Government of Zimbabwe has the primary responsibility to see that justice is done for these victims," Pillay said.

She called upon the new government to meet its obligations under international law, including the prohibition of torture and respect for the independence of the judiciary. "It is vital that international attention is focused on preventing future violations in the country by ensuring that human rights defenders and independent media are able to carry out their work without being harmed, arrested or harassed," Pillay said. "I call for the immediate release of all those people currently still being held in unlawful custody."

The High Commissioner revealed she had made repeated requests to the Government for a visit to Zimbabwe, and said she had received positive signals during recent meetings with top Government officials attending last week's African Union summit in Addis Ababa. However, she is still waiting official confirmation that such a visit can go ahead.