HARARE ~ The death toll from Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic soared to 775, the United Nations said on Wednesday, as rights groups denounced President Robert Mugabe over a wave of abductions of activists.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute blasted the “unprecedented spate of abductions of human rights defenders” and urged African countries to pressure Mugabe to take action to find them.
Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, has come under a barrage of international pressure to step down, amid a worsening cholera epidemic and a political stalemate after this year’s controversial elections.
The United Nations said the deadly but treatable disease had claimed 775 lives, with more than 16,000 cases reported – half of them in just one Harare suburb.
The increase came despite assurances by Zimbabwe’s information minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, who said on Tuesday that “the cholera situation is under control.”
Although Zimbabwe has called for international aid, a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity in Harare said that a French medical team had been denied visas.
The embassy in Paris told them that “Zimbabwe doesn’t need a foreign technical team to fight cholera,” the diplomat said.
Zimbabwe is also hammered by the world’s highest inflation rate, last estimated in July at 231 million percent, and crippling food shortages that have left nearly half the population in need of aid.
Amid the turmoil, the rights groups said that four activists have gone missing over the last week, while the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said some of its supporters have also disappeared.
Human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was allegedly abducted from her home outside Harare one week ago.
Two days later, Zacharia Nkomo – the brother of a lawyer working on Mukoko’s case – was taken from his home in southern Zimbabwe, while two of her colleagues were abducted on Monday at their workplace, the groups said.
“This shows the audacity of a regime that is desperate to stay in power, no matter what the cost,” said Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International.
“The only way out of this problem is through unified pressure from outside, in particular of African leaders,” she added.
About 30 lawyers in black robes marched to parliament and the Supreme Court to demand that government investigate the disappearances and denouncing “the “continued violation of human rights by the government of Zimbabwe.”
Police have denied holding Mukoko, and Ndlovu denied any state-sponsored abductions.
“When some people are taken by the police for investigations, then their relatives say they have been abducted,” Ndlovu told reporters.
The MDC said Gandhi Mudzingwa, a former assistant to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, was also abducted on Tuesday while 15 other supporters have been reported missing since last month.
The MDC seized a majority in parliament in March elections – the first time Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF had not been voted in as the largest party – when Tsvangirai finished ahead of Mugabe in a first round presidential vote.
The outcome sparked a wave of violence that Amnesty says left 180 dead, mostly MDC supporters.
Tsvangirai pulled out of a June runoff, accusing Mugabe’s party of orchestrating the violence.
The rivals signed a power-sharing deal nearly three months ago, but talks on forming a unity government have stalled over disputes on how to divide control of key ministries.