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Zimbabwe clamps down on aid organizations

Zimbabwe announced new controls  to clamp down on charities and other humanitarian organizations, including democracy and human rights groups that the government accuses of campaigning against it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Zimbabwe announced new controls Saturday to clamp down on charities and other humanitarian organizations, including democracy and human rights groups that the government accuses of campaigning against it.

Under a new code, voluntary organizations need a state license, which can be denied, thus barring them from operating. United Nations agencies are not affected.

The code, issued in an official government notice available Saturday, follows recent warnings from several senior officials against charities engaging in political advocacy. They said some groups came to Zimbabwe with food aid in one hand and a “regime change agenda” in the other.

Close government eye
President Robert Mugabe has frequently accused Britain, the European Union and the United States of funding charities to work alongside his opponents in a Western-sponsored campaign to oust him.

Western governments have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe to protest Mugabe’s human rights record. Investment and foreign loans have dried up in six years of political and economic turmoil following the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms that began in 2000.

According to the new code, existing charities already registered by law with the government would not have their licenses automatically revoked by the notice, as had been feared. But their activities could be reviewed.

The code requires foreign organizations setting up in Zimbabwe to sign a memorandum of understanding with government departments working in their social or welfare fields and to provide accounts of their funding and a clearance letter from the International Police Organization and other details on their history and background.

Human rights and pro-democracy pressure groups routinely assist victims of state-orchestrated political violence with food, shelter, medical assistance and trauma counseling.

The new code would bring them under state control for the first time, analysts said.

The Lawyers for Human Rights group, who provide free legal aid to victims and help channel food and medicine to jailed opposition activists, would also likely be targeted.

Most of those organizations currently operate under regulations covering private trusts.

Continued crack down
Under similar media licensing laws enforced since 2003, four independent newspapers, including the only independent daily, have been shut down, and scores of independent journalists have been arrested, intimidated and assaulted.

Most foreign journalists are denied visas to travel to Zimbabwe on assignment under media and immigration laws.

Zimbabwe is suffering its worst economic crisis since independence in 1980, with acute shortages of food, hard currency, gasoline, medicines and most other basic goods. Official inflation is running at about 2,200 percent annually, the highest in the world.

Central bank governor Gideon Gono said Friday the government used scarce hard currency to buy about 500,000 tons of staple food — mostly corn — to avert starvation in coming months.

Critics accuse the government itself of using food as a political weapon, especially surrounding elections, charges Mugabe denies.