TEL AVIV, Jun 21 – New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said on Monday that Zimbabwe has broken its promise to halt physical abuse of diamond miners and should have its international certification frozen.
The call came in a new report issued by the group to coincide with a meeting in Tel Aviv of partners in the Kimberley Process (KP) certification scheme, created to prevent the sale of "blood diamonds".
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Zimbabwe should be suspended from the group as it had reneged on a promise made last year to improve conditions at its Marange diamond fields. Such a move would bar the country\’s exports of the gems.
Accreditation of Marange\’s production was suspended last November but is likely to be reinstated at the Tel Aviv conference.
Several humanitarian groups oppose such a move, arguing instead that the whole country should be disbarred until conditions at Marange are improved.
"Human Rights Watch has received new reports that soldiers in Marange are engaging in forced labor, torture, beatings, and harassment," the report said.
The group said its findings were based on more than 30 interviews of people from the Marange district, government officials and staff of other rights groups, some as recently as last month.
"Soldiers routinely force us to mine for diamonds; if anyone refuses they are tortured," the report quoted an unnamed community leader as telling its researchers. "Life in Marange is hell."
HRW senior researcher Tiseke Kasambala said that workers, some as young as 11 years old, were forced to hand their finds to their military guards, who then sold them on the black market.
The corruption reaches "to the highest levels," she told AFP in Tel Aviv.
She said many of the stones were smuggled into neighbouring Mozambique but could not say how they reached the international market without the detailed Kimberley documentation which should accompany all rough diamonds.
"The middle-men I spoke to were very wary of telling me how it was done," Kasambala said. "But obviously it can be done."
She said there were no reliable estimates of the value of the smuggled gems but it was at least in the "millions of dollars."
Several rights groups say members of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe\’s ZANU-PF party are implicated in syphoning off the country\’s diamond revenues.
However, a statement by the Israeli Diamond Industry, host of the three-day Tel Aviv meeting, said Abbey Chikane, the KP monitor for the Marange fields, would report at Monday\’s session that he found Mugabe\’s government had met the global diamond regulator\’s criteria.
"Chikane states that the government of Zimbabwe has demonstrated its commitment to meet the minimum requirements of the Kimberley Process," the document said.
"Zimbabwe has satisfied minimum requirements of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme for the trade in rough diamonds," it added.
Chikane was to deliver his report at a closed-door session on Monday and a decision by Kimberley participants is expected the following day.
Zimbabwean activist Farai Maguwu, who helped document the alleged abuses, was jailed earlier this month for giving information to Chikane.
"If Zimbabwe is jailing activists for writing about abuses connected to diamond mining, then it is hardly meeting the minimum standards for Kimberley Process membership," HRW said in Monday\’s report.
The United States last week voiced concern at Maguwu\’s detention, noting that it would prevent him attending the Tel Aviv conference as an observer, as had been planned.
Maguwu is due to go on trial on June 23, accused of publishing information that would jeopardise the country\’s economic interests.