Zimbabwe has auctioned rough gems from a diamond field where human rights groups say soldiers killed 200 people, raped women and used children as slaves.
Yesterday’s sale in the capital Harare was the first public sale of diamonds from the notorious Marange field in eastern Zimbabwe since an international ban to screen out blood diamonds.
Investigators from the world’s diamond control body said the 900,000 carats of diamonds were mined by virtual slaves under army orders to dig or die, and were smuggled out by soldiers who raped and beat people.
But the diamond body, the Kimberley Process, said those gems didn’t qualify as blood diamonds. It ruled that the abuses had stopped and said Zimbabwe could restart exporting the stones.
Several rights groups say the Zimbabwe government has not kept its promise to completely pull out soldiers from the Marange fields, and in May found conditions there "quite appalling".
"We found children as young as 11 still working in these mines," said Human Rights Watch researcher Tiseke Kasambala. "We found that people were still being forced to mine, to dig for diamonds at gunpoint by the army, by soldiers."
The group says children were forced to work as long as 11 hours a day in the Marange diamond fields with no pay or reward. It also said it had reason to believe that at least 300 children were still working there in February last year. It estimates that as many as 300 children still work for soldiers in the diamond fields.
"Every day I would carry ore and only rest for short periods,” a 13 year-old girl told researchers last year. “We always started work very early in the morning, before eight, and finished when it was dark, after six. All I want now is to go back to school."
Zimbabwe's mines ministry denies the allegations of rights violations and accuses rights groups of ‘peddling falsehoods.’
The diamonds from the Marange field could bring in $1.7bn (£1.1bn) a year for Zimbabwe's battered economy. Buyers from Belgium, Russia, India, Israel, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates flew into Harare on private planes to look at the stones and put in bids in sealed envelopes.
Campaigner for London based human Rights Group, Global Witness, Elly Harrowell said that unless Zimbabwe kept its promise to withdraw all troops from the mines and carry out all the other improvements it has promised, the Kimberley Process should "act very, very quickly" to prevent Marange gems from being exported.