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Women activists detained in Zimbabwe prison

An October 2007 photo shows Jenni Williams, one of the founders of Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Peter Dejong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two women honored by the United States, Amnesty International and others for braving beatings and arrest to hold peaceful protests against Robert Mugabe are entering their sixth week in detention, putting them among Zimbabwe's longest-serving political prisoners.

At a hearing Thursday, lawyers hope to persuade a judge to grant bail to Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu of the human rights group Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise, who have sleeping on concrete floors in the harsh cold of a southern African winter in detention. The two were arrested in the capital, Harare, on May 28 and have been charged with disturbing the peace and publishing statements prejudicial to the state.

In her blog on the Internet, fellow activist Bev Clark describes visiting Williams and Mahlangu in prison on Friday, the day of a presidential runoff election in which Mugabe — Zimbabwe's increasingly autocratic president of nearly three decades — was the only candidate.

She and other colleagues took the women food and toiletries. A jar of honey was confiscated by a guard.

"For 30 minutes, we sat on a small wooden bench chatting with them through a fence," Clark writes. "They are both well and in good spirits but they've had enough of sleeping on a concrete floor. They want to go home."

Williams, one of the founders of the organization and a former businesswoman, was honored last year by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with an International Women of Courage Award.

The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, said Wednesday he hoped the two would be given bail and the "sham" charges dropped.

"Jenni is a prominent person whose voice should be heard," McGee said.

'Prisoners of conscience'
Amnesty International, which gave the group known as WOZA an award for its human rights work, demanded the women's immediate release, calling them "prisoners of conscience."

The two women were arrested with 12 other activists after they marched to the Zambian Embassy to call on Zambia, chair of the Southern African Development Community, to help bring an end to the violence that has engulfed Zimbabwe since a first round of presidential elections was held March 29.

Some marchers were beaten by police as they were arrested. The state won an appeal against bail being granted to Williams and Mahlangu, but the 10 others were released on bail.

"We are deeply concerned that the state is using detention to frustrate the work of human right defenders," said Simeon Mawanza, London-based researcher for Amnesty International.

Human rights activists and opposition supporters have increasingly come under attack by Zimbabwe security forces and supporters of Mugabe.

Formed in 2003, WOZA — an Ndebele word meaning "come forward" — has become a powerful voice in the deepening economic and political crises in Zimbabwe. It has held hundreds of peaceful protests and is known for its annual Valentine's Day march in which red roses are distributed in a call for love, peace and harmony.

It has 66,000 members across the country, many of whom have been beaten and arrested countless times.

Williams, a 46-year-old mother of three, has been living in safe houses for the last few years while her family had to flee to the United Kingdom.

"She has been arrested over 30 times and has certainly been beaten many times," WOZA spokeswoman Annie Sibanda said.

Mahlangu, 35, a former sports administrator from Matalabeland in the south, has been arrested more than 25 times.

Brave and resilient
WOZA members "are very brave and resilient," said Amnesty International's Mawanza. "Despite repeated arrests and torture, they have continued to do peaceful protests."

He praised the organization for taking up issues that affected everyday life, such as access to food, health, education.

"The state is very concerned about their ability mobilize people," he said. "They are afraid it can grow into a force they won't be able to contain.

Sibanda, who is based in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo where Williams is from, said the organization is hoping the two women will be released Thursday.

"But we are not holding out that it will happen. The state has consistently played games with their lawyers," she said.

She said the organization had scaled down its work during the recent political tensions but has continued to distribute flyers urging people to keep up hope that there will be a solution to the crisis.

"The state is threatened by the fact that we are a mass based movement of ordinary Zimbabwean men and women who over last five years have shown that despite arrests, beatings and abduction we are still prepared to speak out," she said.