The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a report detailing alleged intimidation and violence in the lead up to the March 31 poll.

“The government has denied the opposition, civil society activists and ordinary citizens the right to freely express their opinions,” HRW researcher Tiseke Kasambala said at a news briefing in Johannesburg.

The 35-page report documents the findings of three weeks of interviews with politicians, non-government organisations and ordinary people.

It details incidences of intimidation including the drawing up of lists of opposition supporters by traditional chiefs.

Voters in impoverished rural areas are said to have been told they could forfeit food aid if they don’t vote for the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

The government of President Robert Mugabe, who has held power since independence in 1980, introduced a number of legal changes after the last election was staged in 2000.

Key among them is the Public Order and Security Act, which activists say has been used to ban opposition meetings and arrest those critical of the government.

The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, brought in after the 2002 presidential poll, has allegedly been wielded against the media.

Several independent newspapers have since been shut down and their journalists arrested.

A new electoral commission has been branded by the report as lacking independence and impartiality.

HRW also expressed alarm at the exclusion of Zimbabwe’s 3.4 million expatriates who have been banned from voting.

They represent more than 20 percent of the country’s overall population.

Noticeably absent from among those governments and organisations invited to monitor next week’s vote are those which criticised previous elections for being marred by violence, intimidation and vote-rigging.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, however, remains optimistic that his Movement for Democratic Change could be propelled to power by a groundswell of public resentment generated after years of political and economic turmoil.