Activists accused of plotting Zimbabwe coup remain in jail

16 held over bid to topple Mugabe fail to win freedom at court hearing
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A Zimbabwean court has ruled that a leading human rights campaigner and 15 other activists should remain in custody pending a remand hearing, in a case that has deepened doubts over a power-sharing deal.

Jestina Mukoko, head of a localhuman rights group, and the other activists have been charged with recruiting or trying to recruit people to undergo military training to topple the President Robert Mugabe's government. "The accused cannot be released at this stage, this is a proper case for [a] remand hearing," said the magistrate, Mishrod Guvamombe. The activists will appear in court next Monday for a bail hearing.

Their arrests have fuelled political tensions in Zimbabwe, where a protracted deadlock on cabinet posts under a September power-sharing deal has dashed hopes a new leadership would move to tackle an economic crisis. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai has threatened to pull his party out of negotiations over the issue.

Two activists facing lesser charges were ordered to be released in line with a High Court ruling last week but state prosecutors said they would appeal against the decision. Thirteen of the activists who will remain in custody are MDC members. Two are colleagues of Ms Mukoko, a former state television broadcaster who has emerged as one of Mr Mugabe's toughest and most influential critics. She was taken away at gunpoint at dawn in Harare on 3 December by a group of plainclothes men who stormed her house and identified themselves as policemen.

A High Court judge last week declared the detention of Ms Mukoko and eight of her co-accused unlawful and ordered their immediate release, but the government appealed.

Mr Tsvangirai won the first round of voting in March elections, but fell short of the majority needed to become president, triggering a run-off which Mr Mugabe won after the MDC leader pulled out, citing attacks on his supporters.

In their affidavits, the activists say that they were severely beaten on the soles of their feet and that they have several scars on their bodies. Lawyers have accused the state of appealing against the High Court order that they be released to a private hospital to make sure their wounds heal while in custody. Prosecutors say they were unaware of alleged torture. A High Court judge will rule tomorrow on contempt of court charges filed against the police for refusing to release the activists.

A cholera outbreak has heightened the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe and stepped up pressure on Mr Mugabe from Western and some African leaders who have called on him to step down. The rate of cholera infections and deaths in Zimbabwe shows no signs of slowing, the World Health Organisation said on Tuesday. It said 1,608 people had died of the disease – which could be treated relatively easily if Zimbabwe's public health systems had not broken down so catastrophically – out of 30,365 reported cases.