Friday, December 26, 2008

Zimbabwe police defy court order to release human rights activists

December 26, 2008

Mugabe regime abducts activists over ‘treachery’

Jestina Mukoko

Police in Zimbabwe defied a High Court order for the release to hospital of a leading human rights activist and eight other opposition campaigners, whisking them off yesterday to an undisclosed location instead.

“I have just received information that they were taken by a red vehicle under armed police escort,” said Beatrice Mtetwa, the group’s lawyer, who often appears for opponents of the Mugabe regime. “The police haven’t complied with the order . . . I doubt if they will comply.”

On Wednesday Jestina Mukoko and the eight other activists were charged with recruiting or trying to recruit people, including a police officer, to plot the overthrow of the Government of President Mugabe. It was the first time that most of the accused had been seen since they were abducted by armed men calling themselves police three weeks ago.

Judge Yunus Omarjee surprised the courtroom by ordering the release of Ms Mukoko, her co-accused and 23 other detainees on the ground that their detention was illegal. He ordered that they be taken to a Harare hospital until their next court appearance on December 29.

Alec Muchadehama, a lawyer for the activists, said that all nine people had been taken to Chikurubi maximum-security prison on the outskirts of Harare but it was not possible to verify this.

Ms Mukoko, a former newsreader who leads the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was picked up at gunpoint in Harare on December 3. Her whereabouts have been unknown since then, along with two other members of her staff picked up the next day.

One lawyer said that the judge had taken his decision because some of the group had been tortured. A two-year-old child is among those being held and was also taken to court on Wednesday.

No specific charges were read out in court but Florence Ziyambi, a prosecution lawyer, mentioned the alleged plot and said that the charges related to “recruiting for banditry”.

The Herald newspaper earlier reported a police statement claiming that one of the defendants had tried to recruit a police constable to undergo military training in Botswana, one of the African countries most opposed to Mr Mugabe’s regime.

The newspaper, which expresses the views of the ruling party leadership, said that the training would have been used to depose the 84-year-old dictator and his aides and replace the Government with one led by Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

As diplomatic pressure on Mr Mugabe has increased, his regime has made claims about an anti-government terrorist campaign and has accused Botswana of harbouring and giving material support to opposition-aligned rebels. Zimbabwe asked the Southern African Development Community to investigate the claims regarding Botswana but the group has dismissed the allegations.

Annah Moyo, a Johannesburg-based Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, said that the charges against Ms Mukoko and others could be used by the Mugabe regime as an excuse to declare a state of emergency and to withdraw from talks on reviving a power-sharing deal with the MDC. “They are trying to come up with confessions from these activists . . . that they have been trying to overthrow the Zimbabwean Government,” she said. “This is an indication of a Government that is desperate to hold on to power.”

The power-sharing deal followed rigged elections last March and June but quickly floundered after Mr Mugabe declined to share any of the powerful ministries, especially those such as Home Affairs or Defence, which are linked to the security forces.

Irene Petras, of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said that Ms Mukoko and others who were arrested had “fundamental rights and freedoms which are being violated with impunity”.

Members of the lawyers’ group took to the streets of Harare last week to highlight Ms Mukoko’s plight, carrying banners protesting against other alleged abductions. However, the regime, now battling a cholera outbreak that has left more than 1,100 people dead, appears less than ever prepared to tolerate dissent.

The United States and Britain say that Mr Mugabe has to go, while even neighbouring South Africa, which for years has sought to protect him from international condemnation, has indicated that its patience is running out. In a Christmas message Jacob Zuma, leader of the governing African National Congress, described the situation in Zimbabwe as “utterly untenable”.

Defying tyranny

— Jestina Mukoko, a former newsreader for the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, has emerged as one of President Mugabe’s toughest critics

— Her group, the Zimbabwe Peace Project, documented violence during elections this year. It has run a network of hundreds of monitors providing detailed accounts of the campaigns of brutality

— Ms Mukoko has made several public statements concerning human rights violations. Her monthly reports have also detailed the withholding of food to opposition strongholds and the denial of free speech, particularly in rural areas

— Last week the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai threatened to withdraw from talks on a power-sharing deal with President Mugabe unless at least 42 missing activists and opposition officials were released or charged. Police had originally claimed that Ms Mukoko was not in their custody

Sources: Times database, news agencies

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