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Zimbabwe voters approve new constitution

Zimbabweans approved a new constitution [text] that limits future presidents to two five-year terms, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission [official website] said on Tuesday. In a nationwide referendum on Saturday nearly 95 percent of voters supported [BBC report] the passage of the draft constitution, paving the way for elections later this year. The vote comes on the heels of a January agreement [JURIST report] between Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] pledging their support for the new constitution. In 2008 the two political rivals formed a coalition government following highly contested elections [JURIST reports], ultimately finding a compromise to hold elections upon the condition that a new constitution was enacted beforehand. The provision limiting presidential terms will not apply retroactively so 89-year-old Mugabe will be able to run in the next election [Reuters report] and potentially continue to serve as president for the next decade, a position he has held since the country's independence from Britain in 1980.

Last month three UN independent human rights experts urged [JURIST report] the government of Zimbabwe to respect international human rights in anticipation of the referendum and potential changes to the system of government. The UN's emphasis on the protection of individuals' right to privacy and freedom of association accompanied Human Rights Watch's [advocacy website] call for "credible, free and fair elections," a proposition that the advocacy group claims Zimbabwe failed to ensure [JURIST report] in previous elections. Experts point to incidents such as the March 17 arrest [Bloomberg report] of four Tsvangirai aides, working for the prime minister's political party the Movement for Democratic Change [official website]. Held on charges of breaching state secrecy law, the arrests follow a string of allegations against political associates, including human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa who is being charged with obstructing or defeating the course of justice [JURIST report].

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