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28 June 2009

Zimbabwe's armed forces are engaging in the forced labor of children and adults, and are torturing and beating local villagers on the diamond fields of Marange district in eastern Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch said in a newly released report titled "Diamonds in the Rough: Human Rights Abuses in the Marange Diamond Fields of Zimbabwe." The military, which remains under the control of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the former ruling party, killed more than 200 people in a violent takeover of the diamond fields in late 2008.

The 62-page report documents how, following the discovery of diamonds in Marange in June 2006, the police and army have used brutal force to control access to the diamond fields and to take over unlicensed diamond mining and trading. Some income from the fields has been funneled to high-level party members of ZANU-PF, which is now part of a power-sharing government that urgently needs revenue as the country faces a dire economic crisis.

"The police and army have turned this peaceful area into a nightmare of lawlessness and horrific violence," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Zimbabwe's new government should get the army out of the fields, put a stop to the abuse, and prosecute those responsible."

In February 2009, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted more than 100 one-on-one interviews with witnesses, local miners, police officers, soldiers, local community leaders, victims and relatives, medical staff, human rights lawyers, and activists in Harare, Mutare, and Marange district in eastern Zimbabwe.

Those interviewed said that police officers, who were deployed in the fields from November 2006 to October 2008 to end illicit diamond smuggling, were in fact responsible for serious abuses - killings, torture, beatings, and harassment - often by so-called "reaction teams," which drove out illegal miners.

The report also examines the army's violent takeover of the Marange diamond fields in late October 2008 in Operation Hakudzokwi (No Return), which was an attempt by the military to impose order on the fields. The operation began on October 27, 2008 as military helicopters with mounted automatic rifles flew over Chiadzwa, a part of Marange, and began to drive out local miners. Soldiers indiscriminately fired live ammunition and tear gas into the diamond fields and into surrounding villages. On the ground, hundreds of soldiers indiscriminately fired AK-47 assault rifles, without giving any warning. In the panic and ensuing stampede, some miners were trapped and died in tunnels. Over three weeks, the military assault resulted in the brutal deaths of more than 200 people. Soldiers forced miners to dig mass graves for many of the dead.

The police and military have been given access to Marange's mineral wealth at a time when the government has struggled to pay their wages. Human Rights Watch's research suggests that revenue from the gems has also enriched senior ZANU-PF officials and provided an important revenue stream for the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which has underwritten some military operations.

Army brigades are still being rotated into Marange. Under military control, hundreds of children and adults endure forced labor for mining syndicates, while soldiers continue to torture and beat villagers, accusing them of either being or supporting illegal miners who are not working for the army.

ZANU-PF, which was in sole control of the government until February 2009, has either failed to or decided not to effectively regulate the diamond fields while exploiting the absence of clear legal ownership of the gemstones. The party's mismanagement of the diamond fields has taken place amidst failed economic policies that have resulted in astronomically high inflation rates in Zimbabwe, which has teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.

While Zimbabwe's new power-sharing government, formed in February 2009, now lobbies the world for development aid, millions of dollars in potential government revenue are being siphoned off through illegal diamond mining, smuggling of gemstones outside the country, and corruption. The new government could generate substantial amounts of revenue from the diamonds to fund a significant portion of Zimbabwe's economic recovery program if the diamond industry were legally regulated and operated with greater transparency and accountability.

Human Rights Watch urged the power-sharing government to remove the military from Marange and restore security responsibilities to the police, but ensure that the police abide by internationally recognized standards of law enforcement and use of lethal force. The power-sharing government should also appoint a local police oversight committee, open an impartial and independent investigation into the serious human rights abuses committed, and hold accountable all those found to be responsible.

Human Rights Watch called on the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), the government-led international monitoring group created to halt and prevent the trade in conflict diamonds, to press Zimbabwe, a participant, to end the smuggling of diamonds, and ensure that all diamonds from Marange are lawfully mined, documented, and exported in compliance with KPCS standards. Human Rights Watch said the KPCS should urgently review and broaden the definition of "conflict diamonds" to include diamonds mined in the context of serious and systematic human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch also urged South Africa, both as member of the KPCS and as chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to press for speedy reforms and policy changes that will stop the export of smuggled diamonds from Marange into South Africa and other countries, given the serious human rights abuses involved.

To read the Human Rights Watch report in its entirety, click on the photo below: