Lawyers for detained rights activists called on Monday for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s government to be charged with contempt as the country’s cholera death toll rose above 1,500.
The defense team for 18 activists was in court either to press for transfer to hospital in line with a Zimbabwe high court order, or to fight charges of plotting to overthrow the 84-year-old ruler for nearly three decades.
“The state is approaching this court with dirty hands. The state did not comply with the order of [high court ] justice Yunus Omerjee,” one of the lawyers, Charlel Kwaramba, told a magistrates’ court.
“On that basis alone, the state should be held in contempt of the high court,” he said.
The defendants, Jestina Mukoko of the Zimbabwe Peace Project and eight associates, stand accused of recruiting or inciting people to undergo military training to fight Mugabe’s government.
A two-year-old boy also detained in prison was present in court but not charged.
Nine others, including opposition party members, were additionally brought in from police custody. Seven were charged with bombing and acts of banditry, with the other two accused of complicity.
Magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe — who ordered that all the accused be examined by doctors of their choice while in detention — postponed the hearings until tomorrow, when he will rule on whether they should proceed to trial.
He will also hear arguments then about whether Mukoko and activists in her group plotted against Mugabe’s regime.
The government has appealed against last Wednesday’s high court ruling. Defense lawyers had earlier said the activists may have been tortured in custody.
In his preliminary remarks, Kwaramba said of the first nine: “We are contesting the accused being formally remanded. The actual criminals are their abductors.”
Mukoko’s peace group recorded cases of alleged violence against supporters of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in this year’s contested elections.
Mukoko was seized from her home on Dec. 3 by armed men, who identified themselves as police.
Two members of her staff were taken away from their office days later. They have been accused, together with 28 members of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, of recruiting anti-government plotters.
The MDC has insisted that the abductions and detention of its supporters would further hamper stalled talks with the ruling party on forming a unity government.
“There is also the issue of abductions, which are taking place against the spirit of the memorandum of understanding and the global political agreement, and the use of hate language in the state media,” MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said.
“This persecution on trumped-up charges is simply going to jeopardize the process and spirit of a negotiated settlement which is already destabilized,” Chamisa said.
On a day which only served to underline the depth of the crisis engulfing Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, new UN figures showed that its cholera epidemic has claimed 1,564 lives since August.
The number of cases also shot up to 29,131 from 23,712, the WHO said.
Harare remains the worst-hit region, with 330 deaths and 9,916 suspected cases.