Activists to Spend New Year's in Jail in Zimbabwe

A respected human rights campaigner and 31 other activists in Zimbabwe will remain in jail over New Year's after a High Court judge postponed an application for their release until Friday.

Zimbabwe Peace Project leader Jestina Mukoko and the other detainees are accused of plotting to overthrow President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980.

Opposition leaders say the detentions are part of Mugabe's clampdown on pro-democracy activists and are further evidence of his determination to keep control of his stricken nation in defiance of a power-sharing agreement.

"The year ahead, 2009, looks grim," Grace Mutandwa, a Zimbabwean staff member at the British Embassy in Harare, wrote in a blog. "Many in Zimbabwe would like to forget 2008 but this is something we might not be able to do."

Once a source of regional pride, Zimbabwe has been crippled by galloping hyperinflation — one egg now costs 300 million Zimbabwe dollars. There is mass unemployment and worsening malnutrition, and the country's education and health systems are collapsing.

The southern African nation's power, water and sewage treatment systems are in total disrepair, and a cholera epidemic has killed more than 1,600 people since August.

The international Red Cross said Wednesday it has deployed seven emergency response units throughout Zimbabwe to combat the worsening cholera crisis. The units — specialized teams that are fully self-sufficient for one month — are usually only deployed in the most critical humanitarian situations, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami and large earthquakes.

Tammam Aloudat, a Red Cross emergency health officer, said the mobile units would be able to reach rural communities. Currently 43 percent of cholera victims in Zimbabwe are dying before they can reach a treatment center, even though the disease is easily treatable, he said.

Activists say the humanitarian crisis has been accompanied by increasing repression in recent weeks.

Defense attorney Beatrice Mtetwa said state lawyers conceded Wednesday for the first time that state security agents abducted Mukoko from her home in early December. For weeks police had denied they were holding the peace activist.

High Court Judge Alphias Chitakunye on Wednesday postponed a defense application for the immediate release of Mukoko and the other detainees until Friday.

Mtetwa said police have defied at least two court orders to free them and ignored a magistrate's ruling that they be allowed visits from private doctors after they appeared in court Monday with swollen and bloodied faces.

The defense team also demanded that the police commissioner and attorney general be summoned to the High Court for contempt. A Dec. 24 ruling said the activists should be transferred to a hospital for investigation of alleged torture.

The High Court applications came shortly after a magistrate ordered them to stay in custody until Monday.

Magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe also ordered five officials with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to remain in detention to Jan. 5 on allegations of involvement in two minor bombings at the main Harare police station earlier this year and a small explosion at a bridge outside Harare.

They included a close adviser to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his party's head of security.