Zimbabwe’s high court ordered on Wednesday that a top rights activist, who was seized weeks ago, be released to hospital after facing accusations in a lower court of recruiting anti-government plotters.
The move came with pressure mounting on President Robert Mugabe over a deadly cholera epidemic and ruinous political crisis, and earlier in the day Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu accused South Africa of failing to stand up to the veteran leader.
Judge Yunus Omarjee ordered late on Wednesday night that Jestina Mukoko and eight other activists be released to the custody of a Harare hospital under police guard until their next court date on December 29.
The judge offered no explanation for ordering them to hospital, but one of their lawyers said they may have been tortured.
”There are allegations that they have been tortured. They came to the police being blindfolded,” said Beatrice Mtetwa, who was part of the defence team that filed an urgent application for the release of the detainees.
Omarjee also ordered the immediate release of 23 others, including a mother with a two-year-old baby in custody, declaring their detention ”unlawful”.
Mukoko and eight activists appeared earlier in a magistrate’s court in Harare where they were accused of plotting against the government of Mugabe.
Specific charges against Mukoko, taken from her home on December 3 and held in an unknown location, as well as the others, were not listed in the magistrate’s court, but prosecutor Florence Ziyambi spoke of the alleged plot.
”Sometime in October the government of Zimbabwe launched complaints that Botswana was training insurgents … for the purpose of removing the present government. That’s when security people picked up the accused persons.”
”Charges relate to recruiting for banditry,” Ziyambi said.
A defence lawyer also said that the group who appeared earlier on Wednesday had been accused of recruiting or goading people to undergo military training in Botswana to topple Mugabe’s government.
Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project — a rights group which has been compiling reports of election violence — is accused of facilitating the travel arrangements for a police constable to undergo military training in Botswana, according to a police statement earlier on Wednesday.
Her location was unknown for several weeks, with a high court order for her release going unheeded, sparking protests from international rights bodies.
Both Botswana and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have denied the charges.
As diplomatic pressure on Mugabe has grown, his regime has claimed an anti-government terror campaign, and has accused Botswana of harbouring and giving material support to opposition-aligned rebels seeking to topple Mugabe.
While the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has investigated the claim and will deliver a report, South African President and SADC chairperson Kgalema Motlanthe said the bloc felt it had no substance.
Tutu launched a stinging attack on South Africa on Wednesday, accusing it of failing to stand up to Mugabe and betraying its anti-apartheid legacy.
Tutu, the retired archbishop of Cape Town, told BBC radio he was ”ashamed” of his homeland.
Regional leaders have faced increasing calls to lean on Mugabe, as Western powers push for him to step down in the wake of a political crisis, economic ruin and the cholera epidemic.
Apart from Botswana, Southern African states have been reluctant to criticise the 84-year-old, but Jacob Zuma, the leader of South Africa’s ruling party, has described the situation in Zimbabwe as ”utterly untenable”.
”The reported cases of abductions and detentions without trial, tests the very fabric of the liberation we fought for in this region of Africa,” the presidential hopeful said in a Christmas message.
Mugabe, the oldest leader on the continent, has taunted his peers for lacking the bravery to topple him.
At a media briefing before Wednesday’s court hearing, Irene Petras of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said 14 people were found on Tuesday at various police stations but that 11 others were still missing.
Zimbabwe has been in political crisis since elections in March when the long-ruling Zanu-PF party lost control of parliament and Mugabe was pushed into second place by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the presidential vote.
Tsvangirai pulled out of a run-off over violence against his supporters. – AFP