Zimbabwe's general election next week is unlikely to be fair since changes to the flawed electoral system have not been made and government supporters continue to intimidate opponents, a human rights group said Wednesday.
The Human Rights Watch report details its findings following several visits to the country over the past months.
The 59-page document says there are serious electoral flaws, human rights abuses and widespread intimidation by the supporters of President Robert Mugabe's ruling party leading up to the March 29 election.
"As the elections near, all indications are that once again the people of Zimbabwe will not be able to freely exercise their civil and political rights and vote for the candidates of their choice," the report says.
Despite government and police warnings that they would take a "zero tolerance" approach to violence during the election campaign, the report says incidents of violence and intimidation remain a "serious concern."
The group documented 12 such incidents, mostly perpetrated by supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF supporters and security agents, between September 2007 and February this year.
The report also criticized the electoral process, saying the body in charge of running the elections — the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission — is inadequately prepared, under-resourced and biased.
"The ZEC is still managed by former military officials and military personnel who are widely believed to support the ruling party," the report says.
Amendments not implemented: report
For the first time, it says, Zimbabweans will be voting in simultaneous presidential, parliamentary, senatorial and local elections as a result of changes to the country's constitution in 2007.
But Human Rights Watch warns that the electoral body has failed to properly educate the public about the four separate ballots they will be required to cast or about the "new extremely complex electoral process."
Zimbabwe has failed to remedy any of the flaws identified in the previous 2005 elections by local and international observers, the report says.
Amendments were made to electoral laws, but not implemented, they say.
"Despite some improvements on paper to the election regulations, Zimbabweans aren't free to vote for the candidates of their choice," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"While there are four candidates running for president and many political parties involved, the election process itself is skewed."
The study was conducted by a Human Rights Watch researcher who visited all Zimbabwean provinces during three visits over seven weeks culminating in March. More than 100 people were interviewed, including opposition candidates, journalists and ordinary voters.
Efforts to get in contact with government, police and election commission officials were unsuccessful, the agency says.