Zimbabwe activist 'torture' to be investigated

A Zimbabwean human rights activist missing for three weeks was taken to court accused, according to state media, of plotting to overthrow President Robert Mugabe.

Last night, a judge ordered that Jestina Mukoko and six other activists be sent to a hospital under police guard so that allegations of torture could be investigated, a human rights lawyer said.

The lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, said the seven would be taken to court again on Monday to determine the next step.

Meanwhile, another judge ordered a different group of about two dozen detainees released unconditionally.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu joined the growing international pressure on leader Mugabe to give up power. Asked during a BBC interview if Mugabe should be removed by force, Tutu said there should "certainly be the threat of it".

Mr Tutu, the retired Archbishop of Cape Town, also said he was ashamed of South Africa's handling of the Zimbabwe issue at the United Nations Security Council, where China and Russia in July vetoed a US-sponsored resolution that proposed worldwide sanctions against Mugabe and 13 officials.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki mediated the power-sharing deal between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, and South Africa reiterated this week it saw the deal as the only way forward, despite new US and British opposition to it.

"We have betrayed our legacy, how much more suffering is going to make us say, 'No, we have given Mr Mugabe enough time'," Mr Tutu told the BBC.

Ms Mukoko's court appearance came days after Mr Tsvangirai threatened to withdraw from talks on implementing the power sharing deal unless at least 42 missing activists and opposition officials were released or charged.

Ms Mukoko had been taken from her home on 3 December, the day activists held nationwide protests against the country's deepening economic and health crises, and scores of others had disappeared in recent weeks.

Charging Ms Mukoko, the respected head of a group known as the Zimbabwe Peace Project, with involvement with a plot already widely dismissed as a fabrication is a sign Mugabe is not prepared to back down.

The Herald, the state-run daily newspaper, said Ms Mukoko and the other activists with Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change would be charged with attempting to recruit fighters to overthrow Mugabe. The Herald quoted police as saying the MDC was training fighters in Botswana.

Zimbabwean officials have repeatedly made such accusations, which have been denied by Botswana and the MDC.

Last week, South African president Kgalema Motlanthe dismissed the allegations, saying the main regional bloc launched an investigation when Mugabe's regime first raised them last month, but "we never believed" them.

Annah Moyo, a Johannesburg-based Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, said the charges against Ms Mukoko were "trumped up" and could be used by the Mugabe regime as an excuse to declare a state of emergency and withdraw from power sharing talks.

Mugabe's government was "desperate to do whatever it can to try to hold on to power", Ms Moyo said.

The power-sharing deal, signed in September, calls for Mugabe to remain president and Tsvangirai to take the new post of prime minister. The agreement has stalled over a dispute about who would control key Cabinet posts - and over charges that Mugabe has stepped up harassment of dissidents.

Shortly before Ms Mukoko was brought to court today, human rights lawyers said they had been visiting police stations and checking arrest records, and had managed to locate 14 activists who had disappeared in recent weeks.

The lawyers said the number of detainees may be higher than the 42 confirmed cases.

Mugabe, 84, has ruled the country since its 1980 independence from Britain and refused to leave office following disputed elections in March.

Food, medicine, fuel and cash are scarce in Zimbabwe, and critics blame Mugabe's policies for the ruin of what had been the region's breadbasket.

Mugabe has faced renewed criticism because his country's economic collapse has led to a humanitarian crisis. Millions of Zimbabweans are in need of food aid and a cholera epidemic has killed more than 1,100 people.

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