Free political prisoners before swearing me in – Tsvangirai throws gauntlet

Harare, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe's opposition leader called for political detainees to be released before he is sworn in as prime minister of a unity government, but did not say on Tuesday what he would do if they were not.

Morgan Tsvangirai, speaking to reporters on the eve of his inauguration, did not reply to questions about whether the issue could derail the long-anticipated coalition government. But he appeared set to go ahead, devoting most of the news conference to naming 21 of his party members to ministerial and deputy ministerial posts and discussing how he planned to govern.

Despite the unity agreement, in which Robert Mugabe will remain president, scores of opposition members and human rights activists remain jailed in what observers in and outside Zimbabwe say was a crackdown on dissidents even as power-sharing was being finalised.

In Zimbabwe’s capital over the weekend, human rights groups said several prisoners linked to Tsvangirai’s party were at risk of dying in jail. Police are accused of torturing the detainees and have ignored several court orders demanding that the prisoners be sent to private medical facilities.

"We insist these people be released before the event tomorrow (Wednesday)," Tsvangirai said.

His Cabinet appointees included Tendai Biti, among his top aides, as finance minister. A treason trial against Biti was called off only last week.

The finance ministry is of particular importance given hopes the unity government can make a start at reversing Zimbabwe’s economic collapse. The crisis has devastated the country’s health and sanitation infrastructure, leading to a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 3 300 people since August.

Tsvangirai said his ministers would focus on the effort to "rebuild our country." He pledged to restore press and other democratic freedoms, and ensure the rule of law. One of his ministers will control of the police ministry with a Mugabe appointee – the police are accused of attacks on Mugabe’s opponents.

"We are aware of the shortcomings" of the unity government arrangement, Tsvangirai said. "But we are also aware of the potential" to help Zimbabweans.

"I hope that at the end of the day, the skeptics will understand why we have done this in this political environment." – Sapa-AP