Fri, Feb 27, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Zimbabwe official obstructs release of political prisoners

AP , HARARE

The prime minister in Zimbabwe’s new coalition government said on Wednesday that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has agreed to free political prisoners, but the attorney general was “willfully obstructing” releases.

Morgan Tsvangirai, speaking at a news conference, said the detentions threatened the new unity government, as did abuses of the rule of law and Mugabe’s unilateral appointment of senior civil servants.

The coalition was formed almost two weeks ago after months of political deadlock kept leaders from addressing the world’s highest inflation rate, a widespread hunger crisis and a cholera epidemic that has sickened more than 80,000 people and killed more than 3,800 since August.

Tsvangirai is under increasing pressure from supporters who say it was a mistake to agree to govern alongside Mugabe, accused of ruining his country’s economy and its democracy over three decades in power.

While Tsvangirai stopped well short of saying the coalition was near collapse, he did say that “as long as these matters remain unresolved, it will be impossible for the transitional government to move forward.”

He added he would discuss his concerns with Mugabe.

Tsvangirai’s party has called the arrest of party members and independent rights activists a politically motivated attempt by factions in Mugabe’s party to derail the unity government.

Prominent detainees include Roy Bennett, Tsvangirai’s nominee for deputy agriculture minister. Bennett was arrested on Feb. 13, the day the unity Cabinet was sworn in.

A judge on Tuesday granted bail to Bennett in a weapons case, but ordered him held at least another week while prosecutors decide whether to appeal the bail ruling.

On Wednesday, Tsvangirai said Mugabe agreed to free on bail those activists charged with alleged subversion and terrorism and release unconditionally those who have yet to be charged.

“Rather than allowing the judicial process to take its course with regard to the granting of bail, the attorney general’s office is willfully obstructing the release of all detainees by abusing the appeal process and this must stop forthwith,” Tsvangirai said.

In neighboring South Africa on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope detained opposition activists and human rights defenders in Zimbabwe would soon be freed.

Ban was in South Africa at the start of a nine-day African tour that does not include Zimbabwe because, he said, “it’s not the time.”

In Harare on Tuesday, Mugabe’s office appointed 31 senior civil servants to government ministries without consulting his coalition partners, Tsvangirai said. All were long-standing officials, none associated with Tsvangirai’s party.

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