Judge Sends 18 Zimbabwe Rights Activists Back to Prison

A judge revoked the bail of a prominent Zimbabwean rights activist and 17 other suspects Tuesday after prosecutors formally charged them in a terrorism case that has been widely denounced as a sham.

Activist Jestina Mukoko appeared stunned as she heard the ruling from the dock, and stared at Harare Magistrate Catherine Chimanda as her supporters burst into tears. Mukoko and the others have said they were tortured during an earlier stint in prison.

The suspects had been free on bail for two months. Chimanda said Tuesday she was sending them back to prison because a formal indictment filed Monday accused Mukoko and the others of sabotage, terrorism and banditry. The trial was to start July 4.

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement Tuesday that the development was "disappointing."

"The Foreign Secretary has previously said the release of all political detainees is one of the principle conditions for full international re-engagement with Zimbabwe. This remains the case at this crucial time for Zimbabwe," Miliband said.

Defense lawyer Charles Kwaramba said the suspects would file new bail applications.

"The law is being applied maliciously," prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, another defense attorney, told journalists.

The charges stem from an alleged plot to overthrow Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Neighboring governments have said they believe the allegations are baseless, and Mugabe opponents say the charges were fabricated to justify a clampdown on dissent.

Otto Saki, a member of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said Chimanda had refused to allow defense lawyers to call government witnesses they said would testify members of Zimbabwe's new coalition administration had agreed the trial should not go ahead.

"For the magistrate, overnight, to make a decision to refuse to hear further evidence effectively stifled the defense," Saki said. "This is a disturbing violation of the fundamental right of an accused person to be heard."

Before being granted bail on March 2, Mukoko and the others had been held without charge since December at Chikurubi, a maximum security prison outside Harare known for its harsh conditions.

Mukoko testified during a bail hearing that she had been tortured and assaulted during detention and the defendants had bloodied, swollen faces during court appearances late last year.

Two of the defendants ordered back to Chikurubi were not in court Tuesday because they were being treated at a hospital for injuries believed sustained during their earlier detention.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who joined longtime rival Mugabe in a unity government in February, had called for the release of Mukoko and other detainees to show Mugabe's commitment to the coalition. Mugabe has argued such matters should be left to the courts.

In a statement Tuesday, Tsvangirai's party said the ruling sending the suspects back to prison would undermine international confidence in Zimbabwe.

"(The ruling) seriously threatens not only the life and health of the inclusive government, but its longevity and durability," it said in a statement.

While visiting neighboring South Africa, longtime Mugabe aide Kembo Mohadi declared at a news conference Monday that "there are no political prisoners in Zimbabwe."

Tsvangirai aide Giles Mutsekwa, appearing at the same news conference, disagreed, saying party leaders were still negotiating on how to address the issue of political prisoners.

Mohadi and Mutsekwa are co-ministers of Home Affairs in Zimbabwe's unity government. Both parties have insisted on control of the key ministry, which also oversees the police, who have been accused of attacking Mugabe's opponents.

The coalition government has been ensnared in disputes over power sharing that have slowed political and economic reform and done little to reassure international donors.

Zimbabwe, a former African breadbasket, has plunged into economic chaos in the last nine years under Mugabe's rule. It has the highest inflation rate in the world, its health and sanitation systems have collapsed, and millions live in poverty amid a chronic shortage of food and basic goods.