Journalist faces long weekend in Zimbabwean jail

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Peta Thornycroft, the Zimbabwe correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, has spent a second night in police custody. Her lawyer suggested yesterday that she could spend the Easter weekend in jail.

The Public Order and Security Act, under which Ms Thornycroft, 57, could be formally charged today, allows the police to detain suspects for up to seven days without taking them to court.

She has been told that she may be charged with "publishing false news likely to prejudice state security" and "inciting public violence". Each offence carries a two-year sentence, and Ms Thornycroft could spend four years in prison if convicted.

The correspondent was detained on Wednesday in Chimanimani, 150 miles south-east of Harare, while investigating reports of violence against supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in the wake of the flawed presidential election.

She was sitting on her own in a café two hours after arriving when she was arrested by four officers.

Alec Russell, The Daily Telegraph's foreign editor, denounced the arrest as "merely the latest act of repression by Robert Mugabe's government against journalists" and said the charges were "without any foundation".

Her lawyer, Tapiwanashe Kujinga, said the police had not said when they would take the correspondent to court but indicated that she would spend the Easter holiday in custody. She may not see a magistrate until Tuesday.

Mr Kujinga, initially denied access to his client, was allowed to see her in mid-afternoon and said: "She is fine." Friends were allowed to take food and blankets to the jailed reporter, a Zimbabwean citizen who was born in Cheshire.

However, yesterday she was transferred to eastern Zimbabwe's main police station at Mutare, in the custody of more senior police officers, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Abel Mutsakani, the president of the Independent Journalists' Association of Zimbabwe, said that the arrest signalled worse things to come for the Zimbabwean media. The Foreign Correspondents' Association of Southern Africa also condemned her detention.

Ms Thornycroft has also written for The Independent and The Mail & Guardian in South Africa. Both organisations pledged their support for her yesterday.

Peter Fabricius, the foreign editor of The Independent's sister papers in South Africa, said: "Peta Thornycroft is a fearless and honest journalist who writes what she sees. We will hold the Zimbabwean government responsible if she is mistreated, and we hope the South African government will also hold the Zimbabwean government responsible."

International media watchdog organisations such as the Paris-based Reporters without Borders and the International Press Institute, which is based in Vienna, also called for the unconditional release of Ms Thornycroft.