A long-running controversy over Zimbabwe's allegedly illegal diamond trade, which human rights groups say is run by the army to enrich the power elite, took another twist with a watchdog official saying Harare can resume exports suspended in 2009.
Abbey Chikane of the Kimberly Process, an international body that regulates the trade in rough diamonds to ensure they don't fund wars, recommended Wednesday that Zimbabwe be allowed to start selling stones again because human rights abuses at the diamond fields had stopped.
Human rights groups denied that the so-called blood diamonds were clean and insisted that human rights abuses and state-sponsored violence continued to take place at the mines in eastern Zimbabwe.
The Kimberly Process is based in South Africa. It has 300 members and is supported by the diamond industry, although it has proved to be ineffective in stamping out smuggling from Zimbabwe or other countries.
In 2009 Zimbabwe narrowly avoided being expelled from the organization after investigators found that troops of President Robert Mugabe's government, which controls the mines, were killing and raping miners and smuggling diamonds to neighboring countries such as Mozambique, Angola and Botswana.
Instead, KP imposed a 1-year ban on exports from the notorious Marange and Chiadzwa fields in November. But it allowed Harare a grace period to comply with KP standards after Mugabe pledged to bring in foreign companies to work with a subsidiary of the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp.
Human Rights Watch declared in 2008 that soldiers at Marange had turned the field into a nightmare of lawlessness and horrific violence, including slave and child labor overseen by armed soldiers with dogs.
At least 200 people were reported to have been killed at Marange in October 2008 after Mugabe sent in his troops to seize control of the extensive field and the estimated $1.2 billion a year in illegal diamond sales.
Chikane, KP's Zimbabwe monitor, declared that Mugabe's widely reviled government, which has repeatedly been accused of brutality and political skulduggery, has now met the minimum required standards to deal in rough diamonds.
He made that recommendation even though his report stated that Zimbabwean mining authorities earlier this year faked KP certificates to illegally export Chiadzwa diamonds.
Shipments with the phony papers were intercepted in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, a freewheeling commercial hub in the United Arab Emirates.
A final decision on Zimbabwe's status will be made at a KP plenary session in November.
Human rights groups swiftly challenged Chikane's recommendation and attested that a Zimbabwean civil rights campaigner, Farai Maguwu, had been arrested by Mugabe's feared intelligence service after he met Chikane in a Harare hotel and handed him a secret document on illegal activities at the diamond mines.
AllAfrica.com, a Kenyan Web site that has monitored the Zimbabwe diamonds saga, reported Wednesday that some figures in KP's Working Group on Monitoring are worried about the lack of credibility in Chikane's findings and will not recommend Zimbabwe's certification.
Elly Harrowell of Global Witness, an international human rights organization, told SW Radio Africa that Maguwu was forced to turn himself in to police after his office and home were raided and members of his family arrested.
That, she said, raises concerns about how Chikane went about his work in Zimbabwe.
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Tiseke Kasambala reported recently that the situation at Marange remains largely unchanged.
Despite claims that the army was withdrawing, most of the diamond fields remain under military control with smuggling, human rights abuses and corruption unchecked.
Mugabe led the former British colony of Rhodesia to independence in 1980 after defeating a white settler regime in a long guerrilla war. He has ruled Zimbabwe ever since through his Zanu-PF party.
His policies have driven Zimbabwe into poverty and near-ruin, and the proceeds from the allegedly illegal diamond smuggling have been used to prop up his ailing regime, particularly through the military and the intelligence service which he controls.