msnbc.com news services
updated 12/24/2008 5:07:47 PM ET 2008-12-24T22:07:47

A Zimbabwean human rights activist missing for three weeks was taken to court Wednesday, and state media said she was accused in a plot to overthrow President Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe police officials had denied holding Jestina Mukoko, who had not been seen since being taken from her home Dec. 3, the day activists held nationwide protests against the country's deepening economic and health crises.

A Zimbabwean High Court judge ordered the immediate release of Mukoko and nine other activists charged with the plot.

Judge Yunus Omarjee ordered police to release 32 activists in total, including Mukoko and the other nine accused. Police deny having 11 of the 32 activists in their custody.

Mukoko appeared days after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said he would withdraw from talks on implementing a power sharing deal unless at least 42 missing activists and opposition officials were released or charged.

Mugabe also has faced stepped up international pressure, with the United States and Britain saying they would not back a unity government if Mugabe remained president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu saying the world must use the threat of force to oust Mugabe.

Mukoko and eight other activists were remanded to custody after appearing briefly in Harare Magistrate Court and were due to appear again on Monday, said Andrew Makoni, a lawyer representing them.

Respected head of peace group
Charging Mukoko, the respected head of a group known as the Zimbabwe Peace Project, in a plot already widely dismissed as a fabrication is a sign Mugabe is not prepared to back down.

The Herald, the state-run daily, said Mukoko and the other activists with Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change would be charged with attempting to recruit fighters to overthrow President Robert Mugabe. The Herald quoted police as saying the MDC was training fighters in Botswana.

Zimbabwean officials have repeatedly made such accusations, which have been denied by Botswana and the MDC. Last week, South African President Kgalema Motlanthe dismissed the allegations, saying the main regional bloc opened an investigation when Mugabe's regime first raised them last month, but "we never believed" them.

Annah Moyo, a Johannesburg-based Zimbabwean human rights lawyers, said the charges against Mukoko were "trumped up," and could be used by the Mugabe regime as an excuse to declare a state of emergency and withdraw from power sharing talks.

Mugabe's government was "desperate to do what ever it can to try to hold onto power," Moyo said.

The power-sharing deal, signed in September, calls for Mugabe to remain president and Tsvangirai to take the new post of prime minister. The agreement has stalled over a dispute about who would control key Cabinet posts — and over charges Mugabe has stepped up harassment of dissidents.

Shortly before Mukoko was brought to court Wednesday, human rights lawyers said they had been visiting police stations and checking arrest records, and had managed to locate 14 activists who had disappeared in recent weeks.

"It is our strong belief that more individuals than those disclosed to lawyers are being held in those police stations, as well as others which have not yet been visited," the lawyers said in a statement. "It is also our belief that there may be more abducted persons than those currently confirmed."

No cooperation from police
Leading Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said lawyers received "no cooperation at all" from police, and were ejected from the main police station in Harare, but visited small police stations across the city. All those found, including a mother held with her child, were denied food and medicine from outside the jails and access to legal advice, Mtetwa said.

Mugabe, 84, has ruled the country since its 1980 independence from Britain and refused to leave office following disputed elections in March.

Food, medicine, fuel and cash are scarce in Zimbabwe, and critics blame Mugabe's policies for the ruin of what had been the region's breadbasket. Mugabe blames Western sanctions, though the European Union and U.S. sanctions are targeted only at Mugabe and dozens of his clique with frozen bank accounts and travel bans.

Mugabe has faced renewed criticism because his country's economic collapse has led to a humanitarian crisis. Millions of Zimbabweans are in need of food aid and a cholera epidemic has killed more than 1,100 people.

Tutu, asked during a BBC radio interview if Mugabe should be removed by force, said there should "certainly be the threat of it."

Tutu, the retired archbishop of Cape Town, said he's ashamed of South Africa's handling of the Zimbabwe issue at the U.N. Security Council, where China and Russia in July vetoed a U.S.-sponsored resolution that proposed worldwide sanctions against Mugabe and 13 officials.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki mediated the power-sharing deal between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, and South Africa reiterated this week it saw the deal as the only way forward, despite the new U.S. and British stance opposing it.

"We have betrayed our legacy, how much more suffering is going to make us say, 'No, we have given Mr. Mugabe enough time,'" Tutu told the BBC.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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