A leading international human rights group called on the global diamond industry's oversight body today to remove Zimbabwe from its ranks because of alleged illicit trading and abuses in its diamond fields.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said its researchers have found evidence of forced labor, torture, beatings and harassment by troops in the Marange diamond field in eastern Zimbabwe.
The group wants Zimbabwe to be suspended from the Kimberley Process — the global body responsible for ending the trade of so-called "blood diamonds" that fund fighting across Africa.
Zimbabwe denies the allegations.
In a statement this week, Zimbabwean Mines and Mining Development Minister Obert Mpofu accused human rights groups of "peddling falsehoods" and "demonizing" the country.
"They are working against the people of Zimbabwe. We are a principled country," the statement said.
The 20-page report was published as industry leaders gathered in Tel Aviv for a Kimberley Process meeting. As its current chair, Israel is hosting the meeting.
Boaz Hirsch, the group's 2010 chairman, said this year's meeting will focus heavily on ensuring that the "minimum standards" are maintained in Zimbabwe.
The gathering will hear a report by the special Kimberley Process monitor to the Marange area, Abbey Chikane, who visited the region twice. Earlier this month, Chikane said Zimbabwe was "on track" to meet international diamond mining standards and should be allowed to resume selling diamonds in international markets, according to a report obtained by The Associated Press. The body is expected to follow the recommendation.
The 60,000-hectare (140,000-acre) Marange diamond fields were discovered in 2006, at the height of Zimbabwe's political, economic and humanitarian crisis. Villagers rushed to the area and began finding diamonds close to the surface.
The military took over the Marange diamond fields in late October 2008.
Last year, the Kimberley Process sanctioned Zimbabwe for "significant noncompliance" but stopped short of expelling it. Earlier this month, Zimbabwe arrested a prominent human rights activist on claims he gave false information to Chikane about the country's diamond industry.
Human Rights Watch, which previously charged Zimbabwean troops with killing more than 200 people, raping women and forcing children to search for the gems in Marange, wants the sanctions to go further this year.
"We believe that suspending Zimbabwe from the Kimberley Process would prevent the international market from being tainted with blood diamonds from Marange," Tiseke Kasambala, a senior researcher in the group's Africa division, told The Associated Press.
She said that allowing Zimbabwe to continue trading diamonds would be the same as endorsing a narrow definition of blood diamonds.
"They need to expand their mandate to governments trading diamonds on the backs of their abused citizens," she added.
The report also alleges that smuggling from the diamond fields has increased under the military presence, with some of the income going to officials of President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party — long accused of trampling on human rights and democracy in the southern African country.
Suspension could result in buyers shunning Zimbabwe's diamonds.
Hirsch said it was in everyone's interest to work within the system.
"Our goal is to make sure that as many central players as possible in the diamond industry are inside the process and fulfilling the minimum standards," he said.