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Zimbabwean women fear more election violence

A Zimbabwean woman described being raped for three days because she volunteered for the opposition before her country's elections last year, joining activists Tuesday in warning new votes may mean new violence.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Zimbabwean woman described being raped for three days because she volunteered for the opposition before her country's elections last year, joining activists Tuesday in warning new votes may mean new violence.

Memory Shiriinorira told reporters in Johannesburg the three men who raped her were still free. Even though she reported the assaults, she said, police in her Harare neighborhood told her they did not handle political cases.

"I don't feel free in my country," she said.

Zimbabwean rights activists said the failure to prosecute abusers not just last year, but for decades, makes more violence likely.

They accuse President Robert Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, of creating a culture of brutality for which no one is ever held accountable.

Groups monitoring the 2008 elections reported scores of deaths and thousands of cases of illegal arrests, assaults and torture. Many of the perpetrators have been identified, but few prosecuted.

Though violence has subsided since presidential elections and then a runoff in 2008, "there is a lot of intimidation and regrouping — some sort of preparation" for coming votes, said Moira Ngaru of the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe, who joined Shiriinorira at the Johannesburg news conference.

A new election date has not been set, but one should be held soon to fill parliament seats left open because of deaths or other reasons since the last vote. In the coming year, Zimbabweans are expected to vote in a referendum on a new constitution that will be followed by new national elections.

In a short film shown to reporters Tuesday, Shiriinorira and other women described being raped and beaten by Mugabe supporters. While Shiriinorira was identified, the filmmakers obscured the faces of several of the women in the film, not because of concern they would be stigmatized, but because the women feared their attackers would strike again to silence them.

"Memory (Shiriinorira) is just one of the brave ones," Ngaru said. "Most of the women are so intimidated that they can't even come out and tell their story."

The 32-year-old Shiriinorira had been a community health worker, visiting AIDS patients to ensure they were taking their drugs regularly. She was also an opposition party volunteer in 2008 elections.

She described young supporters of Mugabe snatching her from the clinic where she worked, and taking her to a camp where she was raped repeatedly over three days before escaping.

Shiriinorira said she feared being attacked once she returns to Harare, but still wanted to speak out — in part in hopes it would lead to her rapists finally being prosecuted.

"I want things to be better in Zimbabwe," she said.

Mugabe's longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai won most of the votes in March 2008 elections, but not enough to avoid a runoff. He pulled out of the second round of elections in June because of state-sponsored violence against opposition supporters. Mugabe claimed victory, but months of stalemate followed.

Regional leaders pushed through a coalition government compromise, with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister, but the partnership formed in February has been strained.

Shiriinorira spoke a week before heads of state from across southern Africa gather at a summit in the Congolese capital at which the political crisis in Zimbabwe was expected to be a major issue.

Zimbabwean rights activist Kudakwashe Chitsike called on the summit to "put the issue of women on the agenda."

Also Tuesday, Tsvangirai said political violence had not been eradicated and called for the full implementation of a power sharing agreement.

He accused Mugabe's party of procrastination and bad faith.

"We cannot expect to be taken seriously by the people, the region or the international community if we do not abide by the commitments we have signed up to," Tsvangirai told reporters at a Harare press conference.


Associated Press Writer Angus Shaw in Harare, Zimbabwe, contributed to this report.