Pro-democracy campaigners stay in jail

HARARE, (IRIN) – As Morgan Tsvangirai was being sworn in on 11 February as Zimbabwe’s new prime minister, a group of 30 human rights activists, members of his own party, and journalists remain in detention.

The government claims they were involved in military training in neighbouring Botswana to topple President Robert Mugabe, but the authorities in Botswana and the detainees have denied the allegations.

Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC),  had demanded their release before being sworn into office as part of a power-sharing administration with Mugabe’s rival ZANU-PF party.

But Harrison Nkomo, the lawyer representing the jailed pro-democracy activists, including veteran broadcaster Jestina Mukoko, told IRIN that his clients were still in detention at the maximum security prison, Chikurubi.

"Despite earlier promises by the politicians that my clients would be released before the swearing in ceremony, they are still being held in detention. The problem is that the politicicians are saying that they will be released soon but ‘soon’, could be in June and that is not acceptable because some of them need urgent medical treatment which they have been denied since they were abducted last year."

Mukoko’s organisation, the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was responsible for documenting human rights violations, especially by the military ahead of the 2008 presidential election run off, which included rape, murder and beatings. Mugabe was the sole contestant after Tsvangirai pulled out of the race citing the level of political violence.

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told IRIN that the release of the detainess was being pursued by Tsvangirai. "As the head of government, Mr Tsvangirai is handling that and I can not speak on his behalf as I am a party spokesman and not the spokesman of the Prime Minister."

Tsvangirai was sworn in at State House by Mugabe at a private ceremony attended by government officials, diplomats and leaders from the region. The negotiated power-sharing deal between the opposition MDC and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF seeks to break the political deadlock after last year’s flawed elections, and create an opportunity to address Zimbabwe’s deep humanitarian crisis.

The swearing in of Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, the leader of a breakaway MDC faction as deputy prome minister, was welcomed with jubilation around the country, especially after Tsvangirai  pledged to pay civil servants in foreign currency rather than the near useless Zimbabwe dollar.

“If we are to successfully address our nation’s humanitarian crisis, we must first address the urgent plight of our civil servants. As Prime Minister, I make this commitment that, as from the end of this month, our professionals in the civil service, every health worker, teacher, soldier and policeman will receive their pay in foreign currency until we are able to stabilise the economy.”

Finding the long-term resources to make good on the pledge will be one of the many challenges confronting the new unity government.