Zimbabwe Re-Jails Activists, Eliciting Criticism

Zimbabwean human rights activist, Jestina Mukoko, is led into court in Harare, Zimbabwe, in this file photo dated Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008.
Zimbabwean human rights activist, Jestina Mukoko, is led into court in Harare, Zimbabwe, in this file photo dated Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008. (AP)

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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party warned yesterday that a court decision to send 18 human rights and political activists back to jail has imperiled the nation's fragile coalition government.

The activists, including prominent human rights advocate Jestina Mukoko, were released in March after being detained more than three months on accusations of plotting to sabotage the government of Zimbabwe's autocratic president of 29 years, Robert Mugabe. A magistrate revoked their bail yesterday, citing new indictments against the activists, who say the charges are false and intended to quell opposition to Mugabe.

The ruling cast doubt on the viability of the unity government headed by Tsvangirai and Mugabe, longtime enemies who partnered in February and pledged to salvage Zimbabwe's shattered economy. Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has vowed to continue in the alliance despite disagreements with Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF. Key among them is the fate of political prisoners.

"Today's ruling seriously threatens not only the life and health of the inclusive government, but its longevity and durability," the MDC said in a statement. "Today's ruling slams shut the door of international goodwill."

The activists, who include MDC members, were held in secret before appearing in court in December. Several have said they were tortured while in custody, and three remain hospitalized from injuries suffered in prison, one of their attorneys said.

"The charges are preposterous," said lawyer Alec Muchadehama, adding that he had applied for a new bail hearing.

The detentions will do little to reassure Western donors, whose faith -- and money -- is crucial to the rebirth of Zimbabwe's economy, which the government says needs an injection of more than $8 billion over three years. The United States and other Western nations have said they will consider lifting sanctions and pledging economic aid when they see evidence of true power-sharing and broad reform, including the restoration of the rule of law.

"If business is the engine of growth, then the rule of law is the fuel that drives that engine," Tsvangirai said last week. But he added: "There continues to be blatant violations of the laws of this country by some hard-line elements."

Tsvangirai has repeated such criticism, but his power is limited. The MDC, most analysts agree, is essentially a junior partner in a government under the sway of Mugabe's party, which controls most security forces and influences the courts.

"The rearrest just points to the fact that Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF have not entered this agreement in good faith," said Tiseke Kasambala, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Johannesburg. "There really shouldn't be any government-to-government aid, or bilateral aid . . . because of the fact that the rule of law is routinely flouted in Zimbabwe."

The country's economy has stabilized somewhat since the government's move this year to scrap the Zimbabwean dollar, which had become worthless because of inflation. But most of the population is unemployed and dependent on food aid, and civil servants are growing restless on $100-a-month allowances.

Unions have been threatening to stop working. Tsvangirai pleaded with them on Monday to stay on.

"This government is broke," he said. "Give us more time."

A special correspondent contributed to this report.


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