Human rights groups and election observers are condemning the arrests of 35 independent election monitors in Zimbabwe on charges of plotting to release unofficial poll results.
The monitors were charged Friday in Harare Magistrates Court and were released on $200 bail each.
The National Prosecuting Office refused to comment Friday on the arrests, but they and the confiscation by police of the monitors' computers and cellphones drew sharp criticism from observers.
"The growing crackdown on human rights and impunity must end," said Lucia Masuka, executive director of Amnesty International in Zimbabwe. "All members of the civil society who were arrested should be immediately and unconditionally released, and all property confiscated by the police immediately returned. All members of the civil society should never have to face intimidation and harassment for simply doing their work.”
David Carroll, of the U.S.-based Carter Center, one of the groups observing the election, expressed doubt there was any reason for the arrests.
“The groups that were raided - the Zimbabwe Election Support Network and the ERC [Election Resource Center Zimbabwe] - they are well-known organizations that have worked here for a long time, for many election cycles," Carroll said. "That is well-known to the public, well-known to the government. So it seems an unnecessary and petty hindrance to the critical work that observers do to provide transparency to the process."
Meanwhile, Nevers Mumba, the head of the observer mission for the Southern African Development Community, stopped short of calling the election not credible when he presented the regional body’s preliminary report Friday.
The Zambian national said the $20,000 registration fee for presidential candidates was restrictive, cited the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s reluctance to release voter rolls to the opposition on time and criticized the disruption of opposition rallies by police.
"In conclusion, the mission observed pre-election and voting phases were peaceful and calm," Mumba said. "However, the mission noted that some aspects of the harmonized elections fell short of the requirements of the constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections of 2021.”
Zimbabwe government officials dismissed the report on social media and refused to comment to VOA.
Alexander Rusero, a professor of politics at Africa University in Zimbabwe, welcomed the SADC report.
“But unfortunately," he said, "I do not think [ruling party] Zanu-PF is being advised appropriately. There is no need to shout at observers, because they must focus on the positives. The positives are what they can prime on, and then work on the negatives. ... There was no way this election was going to be 100% perfect, given the irregularities. What is important is to celebrate, to say: In spite of all those irregularities, there are still certain positives. ... Unfortunately, the government strategic department is doing a disservice to the republic of Zimbabwe.”
In the election, President Emmerson Mnangagwa is seeking a second term. He is running against 10 candidates, including Nelson Chamisa for the Citizens Coalition for Change.
Voting was extended to a second day Thursday after election day was marred by polling station delays and shortages of ballots in the opposition’s strongholds.
Official results of the presidential election are expected by Monday.