A leading human rights lawyer spends eight days in jail; the prime minister's office is raided, six of his staff arrested and three computers allegedly go missing; civil society groups warn of rising political violence and intimidation tactics. Plus ça change in Zimbabwe.
Yet thousands of miles away that is not, apparently, how things look from Brussels. On Monday the EU dropped most of its sanctions against the southern African country, the most far-reaching olive branch for more than a decade.
This was in effect a reward for a "peaceful, successful and credible" referendum on a new Constitution and designed to encourage further progress. The EU dropped its targeted measures against 81 officials and eight firms in Zimbabwe. Only 10 people, including President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace, and two companies, including the state-run Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC), remain on the sanctions list, restricted by asset freezes and travel bans.
The move comes after years of declining political violence and slow economic recovery under a power-sharing agreement that followed the violently disputed 2008 election. Since then, with the world's gaze diverted by the Arab spring and African coups, Zimbabwe has dropped down the list of crises requiring urgent attention and begun to woo tourists again. Now the incident-free referendum and easing of sanctions appears to put the seal on the notion that the country has more or less "normalised".
Yet the unfortunate coincidence of the referendum with the arrest of lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, finally released on Monday, and six members of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's staff, suggests that Zimbabwe "normal" is still a long way from ordinary. Mtetwa warned: "It is a personal attack on all human rights lawyers but I was just made the first example. There will be many more arrests to follow as we near elections."
Abuses and intimidation
Hardliners in Mugabe's Zanu-PF party are accused of ongoing abuses. Four rights and advocacy groups have been raided by police searching for alleged subversive materials so far this year. Activist Okay Machisa was locked in police cells for almost a month only for the charges to be dropped.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) alleged recently that one of its members lost his 12-year-son to a house fire started by "known Zanu-PF thugs".
Analysts predict a rise in intimidation tactics before elections this year. "It looks somewhat incongruous to lift sanctions in the context of some of the violations that are continuing," said Piers Pigou, Southern Africa project director of the International Crisis Group. "It's another episode of bad timing from the EU. They said, 'If you have a good referendum process, we'll reward you'. They could have put it in a broader context with qualifiers. They've been clumsy in the way they've handled this. It's part of a broader pattern of clumsiness."
Emily Armistead, a lead campaigner on conflict diamonds at Global Witness, said: "It's a relief that the EU has at least maintained sanctions against state-owned diamond miner ZMDC. Our research shows the company is involved in off-budget financing of the army and secret police, organisations linked to violence and intimidation in previous elections. We remain concerned, though, that relaxing sanctions reflects the EU's keenness to see the Zimbabwe problem 'solved' before free and fair elections have taken place, so that it can turn its attention elsewhere.
Now is a critical time for EU governments to do all they can to support Zimbabwe's full democratic transition."
However, the relaxation of sanctions is welcome news to those who believe they have long been counter-productive, gifting Mugabe and Zanu-PF an excuse for the country's economic troubles and a rallying point to whip up anti-western sentiment. From this perspective, Mugabe has just lost a major propaganda tool.
David Coltart, the education minister and member of an MDC faction, said: "My view is that sanctions have outlived their purpose and were being cynically manipulated for political ends. There are elements of hardliners in government who don't want sanctions lifted. Often we see that when sanctions are about to be lifted, some appalling action is taken, which may help explain the arrest of Beatrice Mtetwa. It happens too often to be a coincidence."
The new Constitution was endorsed by Zanu-PF and the MDC, so serious violence was never likely during the referendum. The elections, which Mugabe wants in June, are likely to be a different story. "Although things have improved dramatically in the last four years, there are still terrible things happening in the country and there are still hardliners doing all they can to derail the process," warned Coltart.
"The lifting of sanctions should be seen as a calculated step to help the moderates in both the MDC and Zanu-PF to chart a peaceful course amid these ongoing human rights violations."
Few believe the elections will be as disastrous as in 2008 when some 253 people died, according to an MDC count. The new Constitution will be in place and Zanu-PF is seen as less united. But its hardliners may have become more adept at using intimidation without spilling blood. And it is still hard to imagine a scenario in which Mugabe, who has ruled for 33 years, accepts defeat and leaves the stage gracefully. As Pigou noted: "We are far from out of the woods. – Guardian News and Media 2013