Zimbabwe should carry out reforms to ensure state security forces conduct themselves in a non-partisan and professional manner before elections in July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.
In a 44-page report released on Wednesday, the New York-based organisation said the country's military and other security forces had interfered in political and electoral affairs in support of President Robert Mugabe.
The report, entitled "The Elephant in the Room: Reforming the Security Sector Ahead of Zimbabwe's Elections", said security forces were preventing Zimbabweans from exercising their rights to free expression and association.
"This was particularly evident during the June 2008 presidential run-off election, when the army committed widespread abuses including killings, beatings, and torture," the document said.
"Since then, the leadership of the military, police, and internal security agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation, has remained unchanged and openly supportive of Mugabe."
The report comes days after the country's constitutional court ruled that new elections should be held by July 31.
However, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has said his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) wants more time for reforms to level the playing field.
HRW said Zimbabweans had little faith in the electoral process given threats and attacks against people perceived to be Mugabe's opponents.
Support for Mugabe
"Zimbabwe’s unity government is going to have to rein in the security forces and keep them out of politics if the elections are going to have any meaning," said Tiseke Kasambala, Africa advocacy director at HRW.
The group said since the creation of the unity government in September 2009, several senior military officials had publicly expressed support for Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, while denigrating his partner Tsvangirai.
"As recently as May 1, Police Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri publicly said that the security forces would never meet with Tsvangirai to discuss security reforms and that anyone who reported on or raised the issue risked arrest," HRW said.
Since he became an opposition politician, Tsvangirai has borne the brunt of police brutality, enduring beatings and disruption of his rallies.
Tsvangirai won the first round of the last election in 2008 but failed to gain a clear majority to form a government.
He boycotted the second round of the vote - won by Mugabe - amid a surge in attacks and intimidation against his supporters.
A unity government was formed in 2009 giving the MDC the position of prime minister and finance minister. But the MDC continues to complain that real power is still in the hands of Mugabe and his party.
Although the election date has not been confirmed, both Mugabe and Tsvangirai have launched their party manifestos, with Mugabe promising to push a controversial indigenisation programme to transfer control of foreign owned firms to black Zimbabweans.
Tsvangirai has promised to create one million jobs.