The Obama administration has granted visas to two senior officials from Zimbabwe to attend a meeting of an international body charged with monitoring and preventing the sale of blood diamonds, despite human rights concerns and financial sanctions against the pair.
The State Department said Sunday that Zimbabwe's Attorney General Johannes Tomana and Minister of Mines Obert Mpofu would be part of the country's delegation to the US-hosted meeting of the Kimberley Process that begins on Monday.
The department would not confirm that the two men had been given visas, citing privacy concerns, but officials acknowledged that they would not be able to participate if they did not have proper travel documents.
Both men are subject to US financial sanctions under an executive order because of their positions in Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's government, which is accused of numerous human rights abuses. They are not covered by a travel ban.
In addition, the department noted that as the current chair of the Kimberley Process, the United States is "obligated to facilitate the entry" of participants.
Hillary Renner Fuller, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, said the participation of the officials "is in no way indicative of an easing of US concerns about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, nor a change in our sanctions policy."
However, other officials said the decision to allow Tomana and Mpofu to attend was the subject of debate within the administration with some arguing against it because of the human rights concerns. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The US took the helm of the Kimberley Process earlier this year amid controversy after a major human rights watchdog quit, accusing the body of refusing to address links between gems, violence and tyranny, notably in Zimbabwe.
Rights group Global Witness left the body in December, alleging it had failed in Ivory Coast, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, after the Kimberley Process a month earlier agreed to let Zimbabwe trade some $2-billion in diamonds from fields where critics say miners have been tortured. Zimbabwe denies allegations of human rights abuses in the fields.
The departure of Global Witness raised questions about the credibility of the process. At the time, the Obama administration said it understood and appreciated the group's concerns but that the US would stay in the body to address the challenges and press it to reform to restore its credibility.
Human Rights Watch has accused Zimbabwean troops of killing more than 200 people, raping women and forcing children to search for the gems in Marange fields.
In February, Global Witness cited fears that Mugabe loyalists were using diamond revenue as an "off-budget cash cow" instead of rebuilding the shattered economy. It also said unspecified amounts of Zimbabwe's diamond earnings were being stashed away in tax-free havens and could be used to finance violence and intimidation in upcoming elections.
Mugabe's party has denied hoarding any diamond revenue.
The Kimberley Process, founded in 2003, groups the diamond industry, rights groups and 75 countries to certify rough diamonds as "conflict-free" to assure purchasers they are not funding violence. It was born after wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia that were fueled by "blood diamonds."