Zimbabwe police ignore order to release activists

Police in Zimbabwe appear to be disregarding a High Court order to release members of the opposition in their custody, a lawyer representing them said Thursday.

A suspected activist is led into court in Harare by police on December 24, reported CNN.

A judge Wednesday ordered the unconditional release of 23 people associated with the opposition to President Robert Mugabe -- including a 2-year-old child seized with its mother.

High Court Judge Yunus Omarjee ordered another nine, including human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, to be sent for medical treatment in light of allegations they had been tortured.

But a senior police officer said he knew nothing about the order, lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said. Police did not respond to CNN requests for comment.

It's not clear where the activists are now.

"We are now hearing reports that they have been moved from the remand center where they were being held ... and we don't know where they have been taken," Mtetwa told CNN. "We are, however, investigating their whereabouts."

The police had been denying they held the activists for weeks, but produced them for their court appearance Wednesday.

The court ordered the nine who were not freed to appear in court Monday. They face charges that include attempting to recruit people for military training to overthrow the Mugabe government, the state-run Herald newspaper reported earlier this week. They could face the death penalty.

Mtetwa raised fears some had been abused in custody.

"There are allegations that they have been tortured," the lawyer said outside the court Wednesday. "They were being blindfolded before they were taken to the police (when the torture took place)."

Zimbabwean opposition leaders in the past have accused the state agents of torturing people to make false confessions.

The state-run Herald newspaper said earlier this week Mukoko and the others face charges of attempting to recruit people for military training to overthrow Mugabe's government. The newspaper cited a police statement as its source.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change denies that the activists were working to overthrow the government and says that the charges are a prelude to Mugabe's declaring a state of emergency.

Mukoko had been missing since she was taken from her home December 3. The Zimbabwean High Court ordered police to search for her after her lawyers, the MDC and Amnesty International all expressed concern about her.

Members of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights protested in the streets last week to highlight her disappearance, and the MDC threatened to break off power-sharing talks with the government if she and other abducted MDC supporters were not released.

The 2-year-old boy was abducted in October, along with his parents, who were held in a separate location. The boy, held by his mother in court, cried when he saw his father, Mtetwa said.

Zimbabwe, once a breadbasket of Africa, has slid into increasing chaos under the long rule of Mugabe, who has led the country since 1980. A chorus of international leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, has called for him to step down amid a cholera epidemic, widespread hunger, hyperinflation and a political crisis that has dragged on for most of the year.

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