Republic of Zimbabwe

Head of state and government: Robert Mugabe
Capital: Harare
Population: 11.4 million
Official language: English
Death penalty: retentionist

During 1999 the human rights situation deteriorated. In January politically motivated torture was reported for the first time since the late 1980s. Harassment of political opponents increased. The President intensified verbal attacks on the opposition, the judiciary and the press as well as "outside" forces (especially the United Kingdom and the USA) and Zimbabwe's white minority. The death of Vice-President Joshua Nkomo reopened the discussion on atrocities committed in Matabeleland in the 1980s.


Social tensions in Zimbabwe, which led to food riots in 1998 in which several people were tortured and killed by police, persisted. The economy continued to be in a critical state, suffering from the country's heavy involvement in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and a high level of corruption, leading several foreign donors to reduce or stop funding. The huge inequality between rich and poor showed no sign of narrowing. The government program to redistribute land from white commercial farmers allegedly benefited people associated with the ruling party rather than the landless poor.

Independence in 1980 followed an armed struggle waged against a minority white government that had declared unilateral independence in 1965 from the United Kingdom. There followed, from 1980 to 1987, armed conflict between the two main parties: the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), dominated by people of Shona origin, led by Robert Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), dominated by Ndebeles, led by Joshua Nkomo. During this war government forces led by the Fifth Brigade committed serious atrocities.

The process of redrafting the Constitution, which started in May, led to a more open atmosphere of discussion.

Torture and ill-treatment

Torture of criminal suspects by the police was widespread during 1999, despite government training schemes for police recruits, including human rights training with the involvement of a local non-governmental organization (NGO). There were two high profile cases in which the police and the military tortured and ill-treated the accused. Three US citizens charged with illegal possession and transportation of weapons were tortured during police interrogation in March. There were also reports that an air force pilot was arrested and tortured when he returned from the DRC war in August.

  • In January Mark Chavunduka, editor of the Standard newspaper, and Ray Choto, senior reporter with the Standard, were arrested and charged with "publishing a false story capable of causing alarm and despondency", following an article by Ray Choto about an alleged military coup attempt. They were tortured in military detention. Under Zimbabwean law the military has no powers to arrest or detain civilians. After their release they filed complaints against the state for compensation and challenged the constitutionality of the Law and Order Maintenance Act under which they were charged. The cases and counter-cases were pending at the end of 1999.

Independence of the judiciary

The High Court ordered the release of the Standard journalists on three separate occasions, but Defence Ministry officials ignored the rulings. When four judges asked President Mugabe to reaffirm his commitment to the rule of law, the President called upon them to resign and said that judges had no right to give instructions to the President. Similarly, in the case of the US nationals, court orders to ease their prison conditions were ignored by prison officials, allegedly following instructions from the executive.

Freedom of expression

Zimbabwe's vibrant independent press came under pressure. In addition to the torture of Standard journalists, there were anonymous death threats against journalists, including Ray Choto of the Standard, Basildon Peta of the Financial Gazette and Dr Ibbo Mandaza, a newspaper publisher.


In April, two NGOs, the Legal Resources Foundation and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, issued a summary of the report, Breaking the silence, building true peace, about atrocities committed in Matabeleland during the armed conflict that followed Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. Breaking the silence, building true peace was the first major report to document human rights violations in the years between 1980 and 1988. The summary was translated into Shona and Ndebele and was the first description of the atrocities to be published in local languages. The publication of the summary led to some discussion of compensation for victims and victims' families, but little debate on bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Forty-two people shot or tortured during and after food riots in 1998 filed complaints. Most of their cases were still pending, but in two cases out-of-court agreements gave victims compensation.

Zimbabwe continued to provide refuge to former President of Ethiopia Mengistu Haile-Mariam, who was responsible for massive human rights violations during his rule from 1974 to 1991 (see Ethiopia entry).


In April the Supreme Court upheld a customary court ruling that unmarried women have the status of minors. This ruling led to protests by women's groups and human rights activists in Zimbabwe, who called for customary law and practices to be brought in line with the Constitution's anti-discrimination clause.

Gays and lesbians

President Mugabe continued his "hate speech" campaign against lesbians and gays, justifying discrimination. Several members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) suffered harassment and violence following speeches by the President. GALZ also reported an increase in blackmail attempts against gay men. Criminal charges against the program director of GALZ, which carried a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment, were still pending at the end of 1999.

The constitutional debate afforded GALZ members some respite from attacks and some members were interviewed for the first time on state television and radio. There was extensive coverage in the media of lesbian and gay issues.

Death penalty

At least three death sentences were passed during 1999, but no executions were reported.

AI country visit

An AI delegate visited Zimbabwe in June to work on human rights cases and to update AI on the constitutional debate.

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