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Global rights monitor Human Rights Watch on Thursday urged the European Union to insist on tangible human rights reforms and free and fair elections as a precondition for lifting targeted sanctions on Zimbabwe.
"It would be premature for the EU to lift targeted sanctions on President Robert Mugabe and members of his inner circle simply for holding a referendum on a new constitution," Tiseke Kasambala, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The EU imposed sanctions including a travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe and his close allies following elections in 2002 which the bloc said were rigged to hand the veteran ruler victory.
The EU is expected to review its policy toward Zimbabwe in the coming two weeks.
Kasambala said that lifting or suspending the sanctions before Zimbabwe carries out comprehensive rights reforms will give Mugabe and his party free rein to continue repression ahead of elections expected later this year.
HRW said if the EU wants to encourage respect for human rights in Zimbabwe, it should postpone lifting or suspending targeted sanctions until after the country holds credible, free and fair elections.
"Such action would reaffirm the EU's commitment to Zimbabwe's political and economic well-being," Kasambala said.
An EU Council decision last year indicated that sanctions could be lifted if Zimbabwe held a peaceful and credible constitutional referendum.
That vote is expected to pave the way for elections that would choose a successor to the power-sharing government formed three years ago by Mugabe and long-time rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
In late January 2013, Mugabe and Tsvangirai endorsed a draft constitution that is likely to be presented for a referendum in March.
HRW said the powersharing government has not carried out reforms key reforms to guarantee credible elections.
"Oppressive laws remain on the statute books, and Zimbabwe's highly partisan police force harasses and arbitrarily arrests civil society activists," the rights watchdog.
"Some government-owned companies subject to EU sanctions, like the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC), are mining diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe and providing unaccountable support to ZANU-PF."