By Carolyn Dempster
BBC, Southern Africa
Zimbabweans are today a people paralysed by fear of their own regime.
The ruling party is accused of intimidating the opposition
In the cities people are scared of openly criticising President Robert Mugabe, because it might mean instant arrest.
In the rural areas they stay silent and do whatever it takes to access the food they need to keep their families alive.
Three years of overt violence, suppression of dissent, and the arrest and torture of opposition political supporters under draconian security legislation has left the president's Zanu-PF party in a stronger position, claims political analyst and chairman of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Committee, Brian Raftopolous.
He believes that Zimbabwe's worsening economic crisis is not sufficient to spur a popular uprising.
"I think people are angry. But they're also despondent, they're scared. For an action to come, there'd have to be a lot more organisation on the part of civic groups.
"Given the increased impoverishment, there's been a disempowerment of most people," he said.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) calculates that between January and November last year, 1,060 MDC activists were tortured, 227 abducted and beaten, 58 murdered, 111 unlawfully detained, and 170 picked up, tortured and released without being charged.
And those figures exclude the women who are linked to the MDC in some way who have been raped for their political beliefs.
Independent human rights groups who have attempted to document the growing onslaught on public dissenters have been outlawed - like the Amani Trust - or silenced through harassment and intimidation under the draconian Public Order and Security Act (POSA).
1,060 activists tortured last year
227 abducted and beaten
111 unlawfully detained
170 tortured and released without charge
This, claim many Zimbabweans, is far worse than the security laws imposed by Ian Smith's minority white regime before it fell in 1980.
Job Sikhala, an MDC member of parliament, was recently arrested for the 17th time, held without being charged, interrogated and then driven to an unknown destination where he was beaten and tortured for eight hours, and then given poison to drink.
"I screamed for help, and no help came and I was told to shut up. At the third stage of torture, when they applied electric shocks to my mouth, and in my left ear, I lost consciousness.
"I heard a voice from a distance saying: 'We have killed a person here. What should we do? Let's go and throw him into a dam'. That is the time when I lost control of my bladder."
Mr Sikhala was eventually released, and examined by a government doctor who confirmed he had been tortured.
People are scared to openly criticise President Mugabe
The government has since admitted he was tortured and has promised to bring the police officers to book.
Mr Sikhala laughs at this: "The police themselves are the torturers. For them to investigate themselves is really a joke."
During the weeks I spent in Zimbabwe, I heard similar stories of arbitrary arrest, a night spent in the crowded police cells and "bail" of
50,000 Zimbabwe dollars being extorted - whereupon the person was released without being charged.
There is a growing sense of despair among Zimbabwe's citizens that they cannot rely on the police to protect them or their property because the security forces are partisan and have become the foot soldiers of Zanu-PF.
Sternford Moyo is president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, but that did not protect him from arrest and harassment at the hands of the authorities.
"We haven't reached a stage where the legal system is not functioning," he says, but admits that judicial rulings are sometimes blithely ignored by the police.
The country has become a police state
Elias Mudzuri, Harare Mayor
"And whenever members of the public feel that they cannot enforce their rights through the normal court system, the temptation to resort to self-help becomes irresistible."
Recently the courts ruled that the arrest and detention of the Mayor of Harare, Elias Mudzuri, for addressing a public meeting about the city's water shortages, was "unlawful" and should never have happened.
High Court judge Justice Benjamin Paradza issued the order to free the mayor twice before Mr Mudzuri was finally released by the police.
The mayor had been beaten, kept for two nights in a police cell and prevented from calling his lawyer.
"We are under siege," he said.
"I was threatened with death by some police officers. I was not allowed to talk to my lawyer, my wife. How do I cry out to the external world?"
Worse than that - says Mr Mudzuri, who was elected on an MDC ticket in a landslide victory - the security forces now act with impunity.
"The democratic space for anyone who is perceived to be opposition is closed. And people are being maimed and killed. The country has become a police state."
The police are seen as partisan
In the streets the police now have the support of some 9,000 young men who have been trained as Zanu-PF youth militias and are known as the "Green Bombers" after the green uniforms they sport.
They are being used to instil fear among ordinary citizens who dare speak out against food shortages.
In the town of Marondera, former farmer and author Cathy Buckle recounts how she watched 30 Green Bombers intimidate 3,000 people standing in a bread queue.
"Thirty youths bossing people, pushing them out of the way with rubber truncheons, going to the front of the queue, grabbing a dozen loaves of bread, going away, hiding them, then coming back. Thirty youths controlling 3,000 people."
Ms Buckle sighs when she says: "That is the whole nature of everybody in Zimbabwe now, this huge fear, all the time."
The BBC's Carolyn Dempster has now returned to South Africa after a three-week tour around Zimbabwe.