Zimbabwe activist released, in victory for opposition

Johannesburg - Jestina Mukoko, a prominent human rights campaigner in Zimbabwe who was abducted at dawn three months ago by state security agents, was freed on bail on Monday along with four other activists after President Robert Mugabe authorized their release, the detainees' lawyers said.

The release of Ms. Mukoko and the others in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital,
constitutes an important victory for the opposition leader, Morgan
Tsvangirai, the country's new prime minister, who has publicly pressed
Mr. Mugabe to let them go. Ms. Mukoko, who headed a civic group that
documented state-sponsored acts of murder and torture committed before
Mr. Mugabe's June election runoff against Mr. Tsvangirai, was held for
weeks in secret locations. She testified that she was beaten on the
soles of her feet and forced to kneel on gravel during interrogations
intended to force her to confess to recruiting youths for military
training in Botswana. She wept on the stand as she related how her
family believed she had been killed. Ms. Mukoko was recently taken to a
clinic in Harare, where she was being treated for high blood pressure
and injuries that doctors said were consistent with torture. She lost a
quarter of her weight in custody. On Monday, a prison official
unshackled her right foot from the hospital bed. "She's a free person,"
one of her lawyers, Harrison Nkomo, said.

She and the other detainees still face charges of plotting sabotage
from Botswana; another of her lawyers, Andrew Makoni, said the charges
were baseless and would not stick. Ms. Mukoko's harsh incarceration
became one of the most prominent examples of what Western diplomats see
as Mr. Mugabe's refusal to restore human rights in Zimbabwe, and an
obstacle to their own countries' willingness to foot the bill for
rebuilding Zimbabwe's collapsed public services. Six other activists
remain in jail despite having been granted bail on Friday, because the
terms of their release require them to put up the deeds to property
worth $20,000 – but they have no property, Mr. Makoni said. Another
significant test loomed in the decision expected on Tuesday by a High
Court judge in Harare on whether Roy Bennett, the treasurer of the
opposition Movement for Democratic Change and Mr. Tsvangirai's nominee
as deputy agriculture minister, would be freed. Mr. Bennett, who had
been living in exile in South Africa, was arrested in Zimbabwe on Feb.
13 on three-year-old accusations that were tainted by the torture of
the man who implicated him. Mr. Bennett, a combative politician
despised by many in Mr. Mugabe's party, is charged with possessing guns
and intending to use them in acts of sabotage against the state.

The main accuser in the case, Peter Michael Hitschman, who was
convicted on a lesser weapons charge, was burned with cigarettes on his
buttocks after his arrest in 2006 and was told that his wife and son,
who were in police custody, would be harmed if he did not implicate Mr.
Bennett, according to George Lock and Trust Maanda, lawyers who
represented Mr. Hitschman and Mr. Bennett. Rolfe Kitkat, a surgeon who
examined Mr. Hitschman, confirmed in a recent interview that Mr.
Hitschman had scars from cigarette burns on his buttocks. Mr. Lock said
that Mr. Hitschman, whom he recently visited in prison, again described
the harrowing night of his arrest when he was kicked in the genitals
and then forced to lie on a desk, with his feet in leg irons and his
pants pulled down, as burning cigarettes were jabbed in his backside.
He passed out, and when he awoke, he said, he learned that the police
were holding his family. He then wrote a statement implicating Mr.
Bennett, which he said was essentially "dictated to him."


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