Political detainees offered released if they drop torture charges

Zimbabwean state lawyers Friday agreed to the release of a group of political prisoners held since October by President Robert Mugabe's secret police - on the condition that they withdraw litigation against their captors for the brutal torture they suffered, their lawyer said.

Most of the group of 16 abductees have already been granted bail by judges, but state security and legal officials have either defied the orders or blocked their release, dpa reported.

The release of the political prisoners has dominated the 26-day- old transitional coalition government between Mugabe and pro- democracy leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who is now serving as prime minister, with the continued detention in violation of court orders threatening to abort the agreement.

The prisoners were facing charges of undergoing "terrorist" training and of bombing police stations, although their lawyers say that after five months, police and state prosecutors have failed to produce any evidence.

Tsvangirai said this week that Mugabe had agreed that the detainees would be released on bail, overruling attempts by his officials to keep them in custody. There has been an international outcry over their continued detention.

But in discussions late Friday over the terms of their bail, state lawyers laid down "impossible" conditions, defence lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said. She said the state insisted the prisoners each pay bail of 600,000 US dollars and agree to withdraw law suits lodged in Harare's high court against their alleged torturers.

"It is a patently unlawful condition," she said. "It's the most shocking thing I've heard."

The prisoners have given harrowing accounts in court of their torture after their abduction, including prolonged beating on the feet, electric shock, partial drowning, being hung upside down and having hot and cold water poured over them. Seven of them are in hospital undergoing treatment for their physical and mental trauma.

Mtetwa said she had told some of the prisoners of the deal being offered and would let them "sleep on it" before deciding. She said the state lawyers' offer was not made to a smaller group of the 16 who have not been granted bail by the courts.

The offer also excluded Roy Bennett, Tsvangirai's popular agriculture deputy minister designate who was arrested two weeks ago, hours before he was due to be sworn in with the rest of the cabinet. He has been charged with "banditry, sabotage, terrorism and insurgency."

The exclusion was not explained and came despite a high court order this week that he be freed on bail. The ruling was blocked by state lawyers' appeals.

Observers say that the demands for torture charges to be dropped indicate anxiety among state security officials who for the last 30 years have operated Mugabe's violent machinery of repression with impunity, but since the establishment of the power-sharing government, now find themselves under threat of prosecution.

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