/ 25 December 2008

Zimbabwe police defy court, remove activists

Armed police took a leading Zimbabwean rights campaigner and eight activists to a maximum security prison on Thursday, defying a High Court order for their immediate release to a local hospital, their lawyer said.

Jestina Mukoko and the others were charged on Wednesday with recruiting or trying to recruit people, including a police officer, to plot the overthrow of President Robert Mugabe’s government.

High Court Judge Yunus Omarjee ordered their release and that of 23 other activists because their detention was illegal.

Alec Muchadehama, a lawyer for the activists, said all nine people, who were being held in police custody, had been taken to a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Harare.

”I’ve been told that they’ve been taken to Chikurubi maximum prison,” Muchadehama told Reuters.

”No part of the High Court order has been complied with. The police are defying the court’s order as usual and they’ve started taking us on a merry-go-round.”

The other activists had been held in police cells around Harare and their status could not immediately be established.

Mukoko, a former newscaster who headed the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was picked up at gunpoint in Harare on December 3.

If tried and found guilty the activists could face the death penalty, lawyers said.

The lawyers said there were allegations that Mukoko and her eight co-accused had been tortured. They were supposed to be taken to hospital for treatment after the court order.

Another of the lawyers, Beatrice Mtetwa, said that Mukoko and the eight co-accused had been taken under armed police guard on Thursday morning to an undisclosed location.

”I have just received information that they were taken by a red vehicle under armed police escort. The investigating officer expressed shock and surprise when I asked him,” Mtetwa said.

The case raised new doubts about the implementation of a power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, seen as a chance of rescuing the once relatively prosperous country from economic meltdown.

The opposition says abductions of activists have continued since a June presidential election run-off in which Mugabe was re-elected unopposed after Tsvangirai withdrew. Tsvangirai complained of attacks on his supporters.

Tsvangirai has threatened to suspend negotiations on a Septtember 15 power-sharing agreement if arrests do not stop. He won a first round election in March, but without an absolute majority.

Talks on sharing power have been deadlocked over control of key ministries, pushing Zimbabwe deeper into crisis. Hyper-inflation means prices double every day and a cholera epidemic has killed nearly 1 200 people.

Mukoko’s independent organisation monitored human rights and had compiled reports of violence at this year’s elections. – Reuters