HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Scores of in independent civic, pro-democracy and rights groups said Tuesday they will boycott monitoring upcoming voting for a referendum on a new constitution unless the state election commission withdraws bans on activists that affect several key local organizations.
The commission has so far refused to accredit as poll monitors the members of the Zimbabwe Association of Human Rights and says any groups under police investigation will also be barred access to the March 16 polling.
At least four main groups have been raided by police searching for alleged subversive materials this year. None has been convicted of any wrongdoing.
The Crisis Coalition, with about 300 affiliate member groups, said Tuesday many will withdraw from "the observation process" if the election commission does not reverse its "ludicrous stance" by late Wednesday.
McDonald Lewanika, the Crisis Coalition director, said none of the activists affected have been pronounced guilty in competent courts of law and "for all intents and purposes, including accreditation to observe the referendum, they must be presumed innocent, until proven otherwise."
He said the groups were under incessant harassment in recent weeks and Crisis Coalition groups will be asked to withdraw from observation of the referendum en masse if activists are "cavalierly barred from accreditation without lawful cause."
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, engaged in voter education programs, is accused of illegally possessing and fraudulently obtaining official voting materials. The director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a group monitoring political intimidation, has been charged with running an unregistered organization and the offices of the widely-respected independent Zimbabwe Election Support were raided last month by police who seized allegedly illegal radio receivers able to tune in to stations not controlled by President Robert Mugabe's state broadcasting monopoly.
Lewanika said the Crisis Coalition could no longer accept the continued "criminalization of our legitimate activities."
He said it was feared the clampdown on civic groups could be extended to also bar them from monitoring crucial national elections, slated around July, to end the shaky power-sharing government formed by regional leaders after the last violent and disputed elections in 2008. Mugabe, 89, is to run against the former opposition leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, 61, in the presidential poll.
The election commission has already ruled that Western polling observers will not be allowed to observe the referendum or the elections. Mugabe expelled a European Union observer delegation midway through voting in 2002 marred by violence and alleged vote rigging.
Joyce Kazembe, acting head of the election commission and a known sympathizer of Mugabe's party, announced Friday Western embassies will be allowed only five diplomats each to monitor Saturday's referendum. She said the United States and European embassies submitted lengthy lists of officials seeking referendum accreditation.
She said the election commission and immigration authorities were on the alert to stop "special agents from hostile governments" coming into the country clandestinely to circumvent the ban on Western observer delegations.
Tsvangirai told reporters later Tuesday he was against any boycott by local monitors.
Activists not convicted of any crime had a constitutional right to participate in the conduct of voting and should be allowed to do so unhindered, he said.
He said discussions are under way with Mugabe's party to change its position and accept Western observers for the main elections.
"No party has the right to make a statement on the participation of international observers," Tsvangirai said.