Amnesty condemns ‘political’ detentions in Zim

Amnesty International condemned the detention of 18 leading activists in Zimbabwe on Tuesday as political and said their plight cast a ”dark shadow” over the country’s unity government.

”The trial of these human rights activists has all the hallmarks of a political trial,” said Veronique Aubert, deputy director of the London-based rights organisation’s Africa programme.

”The charges appear to be similar to the charges used during the 2002 treason trial of Morgan Tsvangirai, now prime minister.”

A judge on Tuesday revoked the bail of the activists after prosecutors formally charged them in a terrorism case that has been widely denounced as a sham.

Activist Jestina Mukoko appeared stunned as she heard the ruling from the dock, and stared at Harare Magistrate Catherine Chimanda as her supporters burst into tears. Mukoko and the others have said they were tortured during an earlier stint in prison.

The suspects had been free on bail for two months. Chimanda said on Tuesday she was sending them back to prison because a formal indictment filed on Monday accused Mukoko and the others of sabotage, terrorism and banditry. Their trial was to start on July 4.

Defence lawyer Charles Kwaramba said the suspects would file new bail applications.

Amnesty said it considered the 18 to be ”potential prisoners of conscience”, and called for their immediate and unconditional release, or for them to receive a prompt and fair trial.

”The detention of these activists casts a dark shadow over the inclusive government and calls into question its commitment to ending a culture of human rights violations used by the previous government against perceived opponents,” Hubert added.

Amnesty urged the immediate release of Mukoko, saying she was being held ”solely for her legitimate rights work” as head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project.

Detentions overshadow progress
Meanwhile, Britain expressed disappointment at the renewed detention of the activists, saying it risked overshadowing the progress made by the country in recent weeks.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband said: ”The new government in Zimbabwe has made some notable progress since its inception in February.

”This makes news of the return to custody of 18 high-profile political detainees all the more disappointing,” he added in a statement.

Miliband reiterated that the release of all political detainees was ”one of the principle conditions for full international re-engagement with Zimbabwe”.

He said that in a meeting in London last week with Zimbabwe’s new Finance Minister Tendai Biti, he had welcomed the ”credible start” to the new government’s reform efforts.

”The return to custody of political detainees further highlights the reform needed in the judicial sector,” Miliband said.

He said Britain and its international partners ”continue to monitor the situation closely on the ground and continue to maintain close dialogue to encourage progress on reform.”

”Stifling the defence”
Otto Saki, a member of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said the magistrate, Chimanda, had refused to allow defence lawyers to call government witnesses they said would testify members of Zimbabwe’s new coalition administration had agreed the trial should not go ahead.

”For the magistrate, overnight, to make a decision to refuse to hear further evidence effectively stifled the defence,” Saki said.

”This is a disturbing violation of the fundamental right of an accused person to be heard.”

Before being granted bail on March 2, Mukoko and the others had been held without charge since December at Chikurubi, a maximum security prison outside Harare known for its harsh conditions.

Mukoko testified during a bail hearing that she had been tortured and assaulted during detention and the defendants had bloodied, swollen faces during court appearances late last year.

Two of the defendants ordered back to Chikurubi were not in court on Tuesday because they were being treated at a hospital for injuries believed sustained during their earlier detention.

Tsvangirai, who joined longtime rival Mugabe in a unity government in February, had called for the release of Mukoko and other detainees to show Mugabe’s commitment to the coalition. Mugabe has argued such matters should be left to the courts.

In a statement on Tuesday, Tsvangirai’s party said the ruling sending the suspects back to prison would undermine international confidence in Zimbabwe.

”[The ruling] seriously threatens not only the life and health of the inclusive government, but its longevity and durability,” it said in a statement.

While visiting South Africa, longtime Mugabe aide Kembo Mohadi declared at a news conference on Monday that ”there are no political prisoners in Zimbabwe”.

Tsvangirai aide Giles Mutsekwa, appearing at the same news conference, disagreed, saying party leaders were still negotiating on how to address the issue of political prisoners.

Mohadi and Mutsekwa are co-ministers of Home Affairs in Zimbabwe’s unity government. Both parties have insisted on control of the key ministry, which also oversees the police, who have been accused of attacking Mugabe’s opponents.

The coalition government has been ensnared in disputes over power sharing that have slowed political and economic reform and done little to reassure international donors.

Zimbabwe, a former African breadbasket, has plunged into economic chaos in the past nine years under Mugabe’s rule. It has the highest inflation rate in the world, its health and sanitation systems have collapsed, and millions live in poverty amid a chronic shortage of food and basic goods. — Sapa-AFP

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