Zimbabwe | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2007

2007 Scores


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Political Rights
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Trend Arrow: 

Zimbabwe received a downward trend arrow due to increasingly violent crackdowns on the opposition, growing militarization of state agencies and functions, and a deterioration in conditions for thousands of people displaced by Operation Murambatsvina.

In 2006, Zimbabwe suffered from a further deterioration of political rights and civil liberties amid a near-total collapse of the country’s economy. Throughout the year, longtime President Robert Mugabe and members of his government explicitly warned against demonstrations by the opposition, labor unions, and civic groups. Attempts at such protests prompted the large-scale deployment of security forces, the use of excessive force, mass arrests, and physical abuse of detainees. The government expanded its crackdown on the country’s few remaining independent media outlets, employing new technologies to jam radio broadcasts and introducing new legislation to monitor and intercept internet-based communications. The political opposition, led by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) continued to be racked by divisions in 2006. Little progress was made in the resettling of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans affected by Operation Murambatsvina, a politically tinged slum-clearance effort. Zimbabwe’s economic crisis worsened significantly in 2006, with inflation reaching a high of over 1,200 percent in September despite a forced devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar that same month. The crisis put the price of basic goods—including food and fuel—out of the reach of most Zimbabweans.

In 1965, a white-minority regime led by Prime Minister Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain in what was then Rhodesia; the resultant state was considered illegal and was subjected to extensive sanctions by the United Nations. A guerrilla war led by black nationalist groups, as well as sanctions and diplomatic pressure from Britain and the United States, contributed to the end of white-minority rule in 1979 and the recognition of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), initially brought to power in relatively democratic elections, have ruled the country since then.

Zimbabwe was relatively stable in its first years of independence, but from 1983 to 1987, the government violently suppressed resistance from the country’s largest minority group, the Ndebele, to dominance by Mugabe’s ethnic Shona majority. Severe human rights abuses—including the deaths of between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians—accompanied the struggle, which ended with an accord that brought Ndebele leaders into the government. Opposition to Mugabe’s government spurred widespread unrest in the 1990s. In 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), an alliance between trade unions and other civil society groups, was created to lead the political opposition.

In February 2000, the MDC helped defeat a referendum on a draft constitution that would have greatly expanded executive power. Parliamentary elections in June 2000 were deemed by observers to be fundamentally flawed prior to balloting. Candidates and supporters of the MDC faced violence and intimidation, including rape. A constitutional provision empowering Mugabe and allied traditional leaders to appoint one-fifth of the members of Parliament helped to ensure ZANU-PF’s majority in the legislature. Voter registration, identification procedures, and tabulation of results were judged highly irregular by independent observers. The state-controlled media offered limited coverage of opposition viewpoints, and ZANU-PF used substantial state resources in campaigning. After the poll, Mugabe issued a pardon for thousands of people—most associated with ZANU-PF—for crimes committed during the election campaign, including assault, arson, forced evictions, kidnapping, torture, rape, and attempted murder.

In March 2002, after months of political violence aimed at MDC supporters, Mugabe claimed victory in a deeply flawed presidential election that failed to meet minimum international standards for legitimacy. The election pitted Mugabe against the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai, a popular union leader. Following the vote, the United States and the European Union imposed travel and arms-sales sanctions on the government, and the country was suspended from the Commonwealth. Mass protests and strikes called by Tsvangirai in 2003 were crushed by security forces. In August 2004, the MDC announced that it would suspend its participation in parliamentary and local elections because it believed there was no hope of a fair poll.

Prior to the March 2005 parliamentary elections, the government enacted two new electoral laws—the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) Act and the Electoral Act—in order to adhere to Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocols. However, the ostensibly independent ZEC was highly partisan, and it did not begin operating until two months before the elections, leaving much of the electoral process to discredited institutions. Furthermore, despite some improvements, the Electoral Act granted the ZEC powers to employ security forces, retained biased residency requirements for voters, denied most expatriates the right to vote, and created an Electoral Court staffed by a deeply compromised judiciary.

Despite its 2004 announcement, the MDC did participate in the March 2005 parliamentary polls. However, the run-up to and conduct of the elections did not allow for a free or fair contest. Reports by local and international human rights groups asserted that MDC candidates and supporters were subjected to violent intimidation and harassment—including arbitrary arrest—throughout the country and were restricted from campaigning openly in rural areas dominated by ZANU-PF (particularly parts of Mashonaland and Manicaland). Security forces and ZANU-PF youth militias also restricted opposition assemblies and rallies in Harare and Bulawayo. As in previous elections, ZANU-PF used government food stocks as a political weapon, denying supplies to some MDC supporters and promising it to other citizens in exchange for votes. In addition, according to Human Rights Watch, “the processes of registering voters, delimiting electoral districts, and providing for inspection of voters’ rolls were conducted in a non-transparent and discriminatory way.” Though the opposition’s access to the media had improved from that of previous elections, equal and fair coverage was denied. Finally, among international monitoring groups, only African monitors believed to be sympathetic to ZANU-PF were allowed to observe the elections.

The elections resulted in a substantial victory for ZANU-PF. It garnered 78 elected seats, which, along with the 30 seats effectively appointed by Mugabe, gave the ruling party a two-thirds majority and the ability to amend the constitution. The MDC won only 41 of 120 elected seats. While observers from the SADC, the African Union, and South Africa deemed the elections reflective of the will of the people, local observers such as the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network were very critical of the vote. The MDC claimed to have discovered major discrepancies in vote tallies in over 30 constituencies. Citing 11 of these constituencies and claiming to have won 94 elected seats, the MDC challenged the ZEC’s results and threatened a court battle; however, no legal petition was filed. According to the International Crisis Group, the government escalated its crackdown on opposition supporters and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) after the elections.

Mugabe and ZANU-PF used their two-thirds parliamentary majority to enact a far-reaching Constitutional Amendment Bill in September 2005. Among other provisions, the bill abolished freehold property titles by nationalizing all land, denied landowners any legal recourse regarding expropriated land, brought all schools under state control, and empowered the government to seize the passports and travel documents of people deemed a threat to national interests. Furthermore, the bill reintroduced an upper legislative house, the Senate; Mugabe had abolished the Senate in 1987, along with the post of prime minister. Elections to the new Senate—consisting of 50 directly elected members, 6 presidential appointees, and 10 traditional chiefs—were held in November 2005, and ZANU-PF secured 59 out of 66 seats. The MDC, deeply split over whether to participate in the elections, fielded just 26 candidates and won 7 seats. Only 15 to 20 percent of voters turned out for the balloting. The Senate, estimated to cost about $60 million annually, was widely considered to be a superfluous body created to reward Mugabe’s supporters in the ruling party.

In May 2005, the government began implementing a politically tinged slum-clearance effort known as Operation Murambatsvina (OM), translated as Operation Restore Order or Operation Clear the Filth, in which police arrested some 10,000 people in and around Harare and destroyed unauthorized street stalls and informal dwellings. The operation soon spread to almost every urban area and rural business center in Zimbabwe, resulting in the destruction (mostly by bulldozer) of tens of thousands of informal businesses and dwellings, including entire suburbs of Harare (Hatcliff Extension, Mbare, Joshua Nkomo, Porta Farm, and White Cliff Farm) and Bulawayo (Killarney and Ngozi Mine). Domestic and international human rights groups accused the security forces of arresting and fining people arbitrarily and using excessive force that directly resulted in at least three deaths. Initially moved into transit camps outside of the cities, many displaced residents were forced to return to the rural areas “from which they came,” as designated on national identity cards.

According to the United Nations, approximately 700,000 people were made homeless by the operation, and another 2.4 million were affected directly or indirectly. Wintry conditions, large transportation expenses, lack of medicines, and national food shortages exacerbated the hardships faced by the displaced, particularly vulnerable groups like children, the old and infirm, and those suffering from HIV/AIDS. In addition, the government actively prevented civic groups and aid agencies from gaining access to the displaced. In December 2005, Mugabe drew international censure by rejecting a UN offer to supply tents as temporary shelter for the displaced. He claimed that living in tents was contrary to Zimbabwean culture. That month, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the government’s denial of assistance and protection—including international food and housing aid—to victims of OM, noting that many of the displaced were living in the open, in rudimentary shelters made from debris of demolished structures, or in “tiny rooms with family members who have agreed to shelter them.”

The government defended OM as a necessary effort to restore law and order to the country’s cities by enforcing licensing requirements and city ordinances and by removing sources of “illegal activities.” However, many of the destroyed vendor stalls, flea markets, and informal settlements had in fact been approved by government officials. Many analysts maintain that the operation was designed to impose control over urban areas that had proved to be MDC strongholds and sources of antigovernment agitation. Nevertheless, some of the townships targeted by the operation were built on land confiscated from white landowners and populated by ZANU-PF supporters.

Victims of OM saw little improvement in basic living conditions in 2006. Upon initiating the campaign, government officials had announced ambitious plans—dubbed Operation Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle, or Better Life—to build new housing projects for the urban poor in place of the destroyed dwellings. However, according to numerous human rights organizations, these projects remained mostly incomplete, and failed to benefit people displaced by OM. In August, the church-based Solidarity Peace Trust (SPT) reported that the government had built almost no new dwellings for those displaced by OM, and that many were returning to the destroyed urban areas to crowd into surviving dwellings or build new structures. In September, Amnesty International reported that “contrary to government statements almost none of the victims of Operation Murambatsvina have benefited from the rebuilding, with only 3,325 houses constructed—compared to the 92,460 homes destroyed…and construction has ground to a halt in many areas.” The group also noted that most constructed houses were incomplete (“lacking doors, windows, floors, and even roofs”) and lacked basic water and sanitation facilities. Many houses and land plots had been allocated not to victims of OM but to civil servants, police officers, and soldiers, the report said. Amnesty noted that, in the investigated areas, army officers led most interministerial committees charged with allocating constructed houses, and that the process was driven by political status or bribes.

The government’s seizures of white-owned farmland, which began in 2000, precipitated the collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy, since the commercial farming sector had accounted for the majority of the country’s exports, foreign exchange, and jobs. Much of the seized land went to ZANU-PF officials, Mugabe loyalists, and war veterans without a farming background. The country’s gross domestic product has fallen more than 35 percent since the land reform began, making Zimbabwe the world’s fastest-shrinking economy in a country without an active war or insurgency. The triple-digit inflation that has plagued Zimbabwe in recent years increased rapidly in 2006, peaking at over 1,200 percent in September. As a result, a bundle of basic goods cost Zimbabweans 13 times as much as it did the year before. The government controls the prices of many major commodities and food staples, and state-linked companies dominate many sectors, exacerbating the shortages of key imports, most notably fuel. In December, the Department of Social Welfare reported that living standards had dropped by 150 percent since 1996. Unemployment is estimated at 80 percent. Furthermore, in both 2005 and 2006, Zimbabwe narrowly escaped expulsion from the International Monetary Fund with last-minute payments on arrears. The country’s dire political and economic situation has resulted in the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans.

In an attempt to control the country’s hyperinflation and regulate currency exchange, Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono in August 2006 announced a 1,000 percent devaluation in the Zimbabwean dollar, allowing only 16 working days for the old currency to be exchanged for new denominations. He also mandated that individuals could exchange just Z$100 million (US$1,000) a day, and security forces were deployed to arrest people who had been “hoarding cash” for exchange on the black market. Because of hyperinflation and Zimbabwe’s unreliable banking sector, many people had kept their money at home, and unofficial foreign currency traders were the prime conduits for foreign exchange transactions in the country. Over 2,000 people were detained and more than Z$20 billion (US$200,000) was officially reported as seized by police officers, soldiers, and members of ZANU-PF’s youth militias. They were widely accused of heavy-handedness and illegal cash seizures. Furthermore, rural Zimbabweans who had not heard of the devaluation were taken advantage of by urbanites who bought large amounts of livestock with the soon-to-be-defunct currency.

In December 2005, the government agreed to allow the UN World Food Program to distribute food aid to over three million people through June 2006, and in March 2006, Zimbabwe’s Millers Association warned that the country—once one of Africa’s major sources of agricultural exports—had only two weeks’ worth of wheat remaining. In April, the government banned international agencies from carrying out crop estimates in the country. The domestic Zimbabwe Peace Project reported in September that food, humanitarian, and educational aid was being distributed on political grounds.

In April 2006, the SPT and local media reported that security forces had taken control of food production by small-scale farmers in the south; the government said the army was ensuring that farmers were selling maize to the state-controlled Grain Marketing Board. The grain board announced in September that soldiers would be deployed throughout the country’s agricultural regions to collect grain. Farmers were not legally allowed to sell grain to any other buyer, though many farmers, citing nonpayment by the state, claimed they had no option but to do so.

Zimbabwe in December 2005 became the first Southern African country to register a decline in HIV prevalence (from 24.6 to 20.1 percent). The drop was largely attributed to changes in sexual behavior, particularly the increased use of condoms. However, in July 2006 Human Rights Watch reported that only 25,000 of some 350,000 Zimbabweans in need of antiretroviral drugs had access to treatment, and that “abusive government policies”—including forced evictions, official tolerance for domestic violence, and increased hospital fees—were blocking wider access to treatment and increasing the threat of infection.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Zimbabwe is not an electoral democracy. Recent presidential and legislative elections have been marred by political violence and intimidation (perpetrated by security forces and ZANU-PF youth militias), a discriminatory electoral framework, biased media coverage, and the unscrupulous use of state resources. President Mugabe and ZANU-PF have dominated the political landscape since independence in 1980, overseeing at least 16 amendments to the constitution—including the elimination of the post of prime minister—that have expanded presidential power. Mugabe has on several occasions invoked the Presidential Powers Act, which enables him to bypass normal governmental review and oversight procedures. Presidential elections are held every six years. In December 2006, ZANU-PF delegates to the party’s annual conference approved a plan to postpone presidential elections—originally scheduled for 2008--until 2010, extending Mugabe’s rule by two years (Mugabe has vowed to retire at the end of his current presidential term). The postponement will require another constitutional amendment.

From 1987 to 2005, Zimbabwe had a unicameral legislature. In September 2005, an upper house (Senate)—disbanded by a 1987 constitutional amendment—was reconstituted with a new amendment. It consists of 50 directly elected members, 6 presidential appointees, and 10 traditional chiefs. The lower chamber (House of Assembly) comprises 120 elected seats and 30 seats filled by various Mugabe appointees; elections are held every five years. ZANU-PF loyalists make up 72 percent of the House of Assembly and over 89 percent of the Senate. In October 2006, the ruling party handily won two parliamentary by-elections, though local observers claimed that the polls were marred by violent intimidation and flawed voter registration.

The MDC had until recently represented a significant oppositionist force in Zimbabwe. However, a debate over whether the MDC should contest elections for the newly created Senate in 2005 led to a split in the party, and 26 MDC members registered as candidates in defiance of party leader Tsvangirai. After Tsvangirai expelled the 26 dissidents, they and their supporters formed a “pro-Senate” MDC faction led by MDC secretary-general Welshman Ncube. In February 2006, the pro-Senate faction elected Arthur Mutambara, a former student leader and scientist who had been living abroad, as its leader. Tsvangirai was reelected president of his faction the following month. Later in the year, the two leaders both made gestures toward reconciling and presenting a united front against Mugabe; in July, they met in public for the first time at a convention called by the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance to form a broad opposition coalition. Still, relations between the factions remained acrimonious. MDC Member of Parliament (MP) Timothy Mubawu of the Tsvangirai faction was charged in July with organizing a violent attack on MDC MP Trudy Stevenson of the Mutambara faction.

Mugabe continued to direct government officials and security forces to crack down on opposition activity in 2006. In March, security forces uncovered a small arms cache at the home of Peter Hirschmann, a former Rhodesian soldier and alleged member of the shadowy rebel Zimbabwean Freedom Movement (ZFM), and 11 people were arrested for allegedly trying to organize a coup. Several MDC officials were among those arrested, although the party denied any connection to Hirschmann, the ZFM, or the uncovered arms. Security Minister Didymus Mutasa vowed to “physically eliminate” the accused plotters, who in turn accused the police of physical abuse and torture. However, all except Hirschmann were later released because of a lack of evidence. Also in March, Mubawu was arrested for insulting Mugabe. Mutambara and 60 of his supporters were detained in May while en route to a by-election campaign march in a Harare suburb.

Corruption is rampant throughout the country, including at the highest levels of government. A profound lack of transparency in government tenders and other operations has allowed graft to thrive. Patronage is crucial to ZANU-PF’s grip on power, and the party owns a wide range of businesses that profit its leaders. ZANU-PF and government officials have been allocated many of the properties seized from white farmers. Anticorruption prosecutions are almost exclusively motivated by political vendettas, and reports of extensive corruption and nepotism have contributed to the stark decline in public and investor confidence in Zimbabwe’s economy. The government hailed its August 2006 currency reform as a crackdown on corrupt officials and money traders. In November, Mugabe blocked the release of a Finance Ministry report detailing the use of fraudulent contracts and invoices by cabinet ministers and ZANU-PF officials to exploit Zisco, the country’s sole steel company. Zimbabwe was ranked 130 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression and of the press is severely restricted in Zimbabwe. The country’s draconian legal framework includes the recently amended Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Bill. The AIPPA requires all journalists and media companies to register with the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC), gives the information minister sweeping powers to decide who can work as a journalist, and mandates prison sentences of up to two years for journalists working without accreditation. In January 2006, freelance journalist Sidney Saize was detained for three days on charges of practicing journalism without a license and filing a “false story” for Voice of America (VOA). Authorities use a range of restrictive legislation—including the Official Secrets Act, the AIPPA, and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA)—to harass journalists. Section 15 of the POSA and Section 80 of the AIPPA criminalize the publication of “inaccurate” information, and both laws have been used to intimidate, arrest, and prosecute journalists. The new Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Bill increases prison sentences for similar violations to a maximum of 20 years. Journalists are routinely subjected to verbal intimidation, physical attacks, arrest and detention, and financial pressure by the police, authorities, and supporters of the ruling party. Foreign journalists are rarely granted visas to file stories from Zimbabwe, and local correspondents for foreign publications, particularly those whose reporting has portrayed the regime in an unfavorable light, have been refused accreditation or threatened with lawsuits and deportation.

The government dominates the print media. Coverage in state-controlled dailies such as the Chronicle and the Herald consists of favorable portrayals of Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF party and attacks on government critics. The Daily News , the country’s only independent daily, was shuttered in 2003 for not adhering to the AIPPA and continued to be denied a license by the MIC in 2006. Constitutional challenges to the AIPPA by the affiliates of the Daily News have proven unsuccessful. In January 2006, the weekly Financial Gazette withdrew an article suggesting that the MIC was controlled by intelligence officers after the commission threatened the newspaper with revocation of its license.

The state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) runs all broadcast media, which are seen as mouthpieces of the regime. The prohibitive costs of satellite services that provide international news programming place them out of reach for most Zimbabweans. In December 2005, police and government officials raided the Harare office of the independent Voice of the People (VOP) radio station, confiscating equipment and files and arresting three employees. Six members of the VOP’s board of trustees were also arrested and charged with broadcasting without a license. In order to circumvent Zimbabwe’s restrictive laws, VOP broadcasts locally produced programs into the country from the Netherlands. In 2005, the government began using Chinese-supplied technology to jam these shortwave broadcasts, along with those of the London-based oppositionist radio station SW Radio Africa and VOA.

In April 2006, the government introduced new legislation, the Interception of Communications Bill, that would allow government officials to intercept electronic communications to prevent a “serious offense” or a “threat to national security.” The bill would require internet service providers (ISPs) to pay the cost of surveillance. In August, media advocates and ISP representatives uniformly opposed the bill at a parliamentary hearing. While technology for implementing the legislation was already undergoing tests, officials said in November that the bill would be amended to reflect the concerns of the parliamentary legal committee.

Freedom of religion is generally respected, although church attendance is becoming increasingly politicized. Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has propelled a recent boom in attendance, and church groups such as the Solidarity Peace Trust and the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance have been at the forefront of opposition to the Mugabe government. However, church involvement has also increased among high-ranking members of the ostensibly socialist ZANU-PF—some of whom have even been ordained as lay preachers—and church groups such as the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) and the newly formed Ecumenical Peace Initiative are widely perceived as progovernment. In June 2006, cancellation of the country’s traditional National Prayer Day by the ZCC after a meeting with Mugabe sparked a war of words between religious organizations from across the political divide.

Academic freedom is limited. Security forces and ZANU-PF thugs harass dissident university students, who have been arrested or expelled for protesting against government policy. The Constitutional Amendment Bill passed in September 2005 brought all schools under state control. In 2006, the Zimbabwe Peace Project reported that school heads loyal to ZANU-PF were distributing education aid based on parents’ political loyalties.

The nongovernmental sector is small but active. However, NGOs, particularly those dealing with human rights issues, have faced increasing legal restrictions and extralegal harassment. Public demonstrations and protests are severely restricted under the 2002 POSA, which requires police notification—in practice, police permission—to hold public meetings and demonstrations. Such meetings are often deemed illegal and broken up, and participants are subject to arbitrary arrest by security forces (including intelligence officers) and attacks by ZANU-PF militias. The POSA also allows police to impose arbitrary curfews and forbids criticism of the president. The Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Act, originally introduced by the Rhodesian government and revived in 2002, sets out restrictive registration and funding requirements for NGOs. In December 2004, Parliament passed the Non-Governmental Organizations Act, which retains the PVO Act’s more repressive provisions while increasing scrutiny of groups that “promote and protect human rights” and explicitly prohibiting such groups from receiving foreign funding. Following the model of the MIC, the act also establishes an NGO Council with which organizations must register or risk criminal charges. While Mugabe has yet to sign the legislation, in March 2006 Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said that hurdle would be overcome by year’s end.

As a result of these restrictions, mass action campaigns organized by the opposition in 2005 and 2006 failed to gain much traction and resulted in widespread arrests and beatings of protesters. In April 2006, the government responded to Tsvangirai’s announcement of a new campaign of “peaceful democratic resistance” by increasing salaries for security forces, setting up police and army roadblocks, and issuing threats of violence. In September, the country’s largest labor federation, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), called for a rolling protest campaign against deteriorating living conditions. When the ZCTU was joined by other civil society organizations and major opposition parties, the government deployed thousands of security personnel in Harare, Bulawayo, and other urban centers. Some 500 people were arrested across the country, including almost the entire ZCTU leadership. Several union leaders—including President Lovemore Motombo and Secretary-General Wellington Chibhebhe—were severely beaten in custody. Security forces continued to disrupt demonstrations by the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) group and arrest demonstrators; in three years of protests, some 900 WOZA activists have been detained for violating the POSA, including more than 400 protesting high prices and unemployment in Harare and Bulawayo in February 2006.

The right to collective labor action is limited under the Labor Relations Act, which allows the government to veto collective bargaining agreements that it deems harmful to the economy. Strikes are allowed except for industries declared “essential” under the act. Because the labor movement provides the most organized resistance to Mugabe’s authoritarian rule, it has become a particular target for repression. Mugabe has used his presidential powers to declare strikes illegal, and labor organizers frequently face government harassment. The government has created a rival union umbrella organization, the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions, to try to undermine the ZCTU.

While some courts have struck down or disputed government actions, increasing pressure by the regime has substantially eroded the judiciary’s capacity to act independently. The accused are often denied access to counsel and a fair, timely trial. However, several journalists have recently been acquitted of criminal charges by magistrates, as have several MDC activists. The MDC’s Tsvangirai was acquitted of treason charges in December 2004 by the high court, and another set of treason charges was dropped in August 2005. Nonetheless, the government has repeatedly refused to enforce court orders and has replaced senior judges or pressured them to resign by stating that it could not guarantee their security. The judicial system has been burdened by the vacancy of nearly 60 magistrate posts, which has caused a backlog of some 60,000 cases. In January 2006, Judge Benjamin Paradza was convicted of corruption by the high court and subsequently fled the country, claiming that he was being targeted for issuing antigovernment rulings. In September, after several magistrates refused to take the case for fear of violent reprisals, Justice Minister Chinamasa was cleared of attempting to bribe a witness in the trial of Security Minister Mutasa, who stands accused of inciting political violence.

In general, security and military forces are accountable to the government but abuse citizens with impunity. Security forces often ignore basic rights regarding detention, searches, and seizures. The government has taken no clear action to halt the rising incidence of torture and mistreatment of suspects held by police or security services. War veterans and ZANU-PF militants operate as de facto enforcers of government policies—including land redistribution—and have committed human rights abuses such as assault, torture, rape, extralegal evictions, and extralegal executions without fear of punishment. In June 2004, the government passed the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Amendment Act, which allows police to hold suspects accused of economic crimes for up to four weeks without bail; human rights activists contend that the act contravenes the right to presumption of innocence. Security forces in 2006 took on increased roles in crop collection, food distribution, and enforcement of government monetary policy. In March, the government announced plans to set up a Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission with a mandate to receive, investigate, and redress human rights complaints. Human rights activists greeted the announcement with skepticism.

Prison conditions are harsh and life-threatening. The country’s 42 prisons have an intended capacity of roughly 16,000 inmates, but house about 21,000. Such overcrowding, along with a major shortage of funds, has contributed to a rise in HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis infections, food shortages, and the deterioration of already poor health and sanitation facilities. Deaths in prisons are often caused by disease, poor sanitation, or beatings by guards. Many prisoners rely on family members for food. Pretrial detention is a major problem, with some inmates being held for over 10 years without trial. Women and juveniles are housed separately from men, and pretrial detainees are generally held in separate, common cells.

The state has extensive control over travel and residence. In December 2005, the government, using powers granted by the September 2005 Constitutional Amendment Bill (CAB), seized the passports of two prominent government critics, newspaper owner Trevor Ncube and MDC official Paul Themba Nyathi. The high court later ruled the seizure illegal because the government had yet to pass implementation legislation for the new powers. Foreign critics are routinely expelled or prevented from entering the country. In December 2006, the Registrar-General ceased printing new passports, citing the unaffordable cost of the imported paper required for the documents.

Property rights are not respected in Zimbabwe. Operation Murambatsvina saw the eviction of hundreds of thousands of urban dwellers from their homes and the destruction of thousands of residential and commercial structures, many of which had been approved by the government. Fewer than 600 white-owned farms remain out of the 4,500 that existed when the land invasions started in 2000. Any avenues of legal recourse for expelled farmers were closed with the enactment of the CAB in September 2005. In an apparent reversal, the government in May 2006 offered expelled farmers the chance to bid for new land holdings, and in August, Mugabe called for an end to ongoing farm invasions. In September, the government promised to withdraw settlers from foreign-owned farms occupied after 2000.

The ruling party, which is dominated by the majority Shona ethnic group, continues to encourage political and economic discrimination against the minority Ndebele people. The Ndebele tend to be marginalized politically, and their region (Matabeleland, an opposition stronghold) lags behind in economic development. Restrictive citizenship laws discriminate against Zimbabweans with origins in neighboring African countries. Despite divisive government actions and statements, including explicitly racist justifications for land seizures, relations between the remaining white minority and the black majority are relatively peaceful.

Women enjoy extensive legal protections, but de facto societal discrimination and domestic violence persist. Women serve as ministers in national and local governments and hold seats in Parliament. Joyce Mujuru is second vice president of Zimbabwe and a possible successor to Mugabe. In April 2006, the World Health Organization reported that Zimbabwean women’s life expectancy of 34 years was the world’s shortest and was four years shorter than that of Zimbabwean men. Sexual abuse is widespread, including the use of rape as a political weapon. A recent upsurge in gender-based violence spurred renewed calls for the enactment of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill, which has lingered in Parliament for seven years. In 2005, the domestic NGO Girl Child Network recorded an average of 700 rapes per month of girls under 16 years of age. The prevalence of customary laws in rural areas undermines women’s civil rights and access to education. Traditional practices such as polygamy and lobola —the negotiated price a groom must pay to marry a bride—remain legal, and there were reports of girls being offered as settlements in interfamily disputes. A December 2004 report from UNICEF noted a gap between the existence and the implementation of many laws relating to women’s and children’s rights. Homosexuality, decried as un-African by Mugabe, is illegal in Zimbabwe.