HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean rights groups on Friday condemned what they called an escalating campaign against critics of veteran President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party ahead of elections expected this year.
A group of 58 civic organisations, including church and legal groups, said in a statement there was a "well-calculated and intensified" assault on human rights activists, journalists and artists through slander, intimidation, raids, arrests, prosecutions and persecution.
ZANU-PF, in power for four decades, has long been accused of cracking down on the opposition during elections. Fears of poll violence hang over Zimbabwe which has a history of deadly chaos at the ballot box.
No date has been set for the presidential and parliamentary polls which will end a power-sharing government set up by Mugabe and his bitter rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai after violent and disputed 2008 elections.
Police this week detained Zimbabwe Human Rights Association director Okay Machisa on charges of producing fake voter registration forms to discredit ZANU-PF, which has been accused of hanging onto power in the last four elections through poll rigging. Machisa denies the charges.
Other senior figures in the human rights organisation, also known as ZimRights, were arrested in December.
"The primary goal of launching this onslaught is .. to criminalize the work of civil society, discredit it and showcase civil society as unpatriotic and devoid of national interest," the civil society groups said.
In Geneva, the United Nations also condemned what it described as a crackdown against civil society groups.
"We condemn recent attacks against human rights defenders in Zimbabwe, including arbitrary arrests, intimidation and harassment," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing on Friday.
"We're concerned about the crackdown on non-governmental organisations and dissenting voices seen as critical of President Robert Mugabe's rule," Colville said.
Mugabe, 88, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, promised in December to fight like a "wounded beast" to retain power.
On Thursday, Mugabe and Tsvangirai said they had resolved disputes over a proposed new constitution and would soon call a referendum on the charter, a key step before elections.
ZANU-PF faces an uphill task to reverse the 2008 loss of its parliamentary majority for the first time since independence in 1980.
Tsvangirai's MDC emerged as the biggest party in parliament, and although Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist, outpolled Mugabe in a first round presidential race, he did not get enough votes to avoid a run-off. The opposition leader then boycotted the second round, citing a bloody crackdown on his supporters.
(Reporting By Cris Chinaka; Editing by Rosalind Russell)