HARARE – Zimbabwe human rights lawyers filed an urgent application to the High Court on Thursday seeking an order compelling the police to release human rights activist Jestina Mukoko abducted on Wednesday by people who allegedly identified themselves as the police.
Harare based lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who is handling the application on behalf of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said in the event that the police denied arresting Mukoko she would ask the court to order the law enforcement agency to probe the human rights activist's disappearance.
"We have filed an application that she be produced because the people who took her said that they were police," said Mtetwa, herself a prominent human rights defender who has been arrested and severely assaulted by the police before because of her work defending President Robert Mugabe's opponents.
She added: "If the police say they are not the ones who took her, as we know they will say, we are asking that they be compelled to investigate her disappearance as they ought to because this is a law and order issue. It's their job to investigate something like this."
The court application, which by yesterday had not been sat down for hearing, comes as a host of key international rights bodies in Zimbabwe, Africa and beyond united in condemning Mugabe's police and security agents for Mukoko's disappearance.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it was concerned that Mukoko's abduction appeared part of a "broader pattern of persecution of human rights defenders by the Zimbabwe police."
Africa director at Human Rights Watch, Georgette Gagnon, said: "The Zimbabwe authorities have a duty to locate her promptly and arrest those responsible, or be held to account."??
Six other groups including the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, Freedom House Southern Africa, Heinreich Boll Foundation Southern Africa and Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition called on regional leaders to pressure Harare to release Mukoko.
"We call on the South African government and other regional leaders to act decisively in the matter by demanding the immediate release of Jestina Mukoko and to further put pressure on the Zimbabwean government to abandon the use of terror and intimidation," the groups said in a joint statement.
United States ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee as well as Amnesty International on Wednesday also called for the immediate release of Mukoko.
Mukoko, a former staffer at the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and now head of human rights organisation Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), was abducted in the early morning hours on Wednesday from her home in Norton town, 50km west of Harare.
She has not been seen or heard from since then and one of the lawyers working on her case, Alec Muchedahama, told ZimOnline that they visited police stations in Harare and Norton in search of Mukoko to no avail.
Muchadehama said: "We have been to all police stations but we have not found her. The police are saying they did not arrest her, I think she may have been taken by other security agents but we do not know were they took her to."
Mukoko's ZPP has played a crucial role in monitoring and documenting politically motivated violence in Zimbabwe, building an archive of crimes that could be crucial in prosecuting perpetrators of human rights abuses in the future.
Political analysts and human rights groups say Mugabe's government has increasingly resorted to repression and terror tactics to keep public discontent in check in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, marked by the world's highest inflation of 231 million percent, and shortages of foreign currency, food and fuel.
Mugabe's government routinely targets supporters of the opposition MDC party for abuse but has in recent months stepped up repression against human rights defenders and other representatives of civil society in Zimbabwe to try to intimidate them from recording or publicising cases of rights violations.
Police and secret agents have on numerous occasions in the past been accused of holding arrested human rights activists, political activists, and other government critics incommunicado for long periods during which they sometimes beat or torture their captives in a bid to break them.
Mukoko was abducted the same day police beat up protesting workers and arrested more than 70 Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions leaders in a fresh wave of repression in the country.
About 20 union leaders, mostly from Harare, were released yesterday without charge but others were still locked up in police cells by close of business on Thursday according to ZCTU information officer, Khumbulani Ndlovu.
Ndlovu said: "The police are still holding the other members who were arrested in other parts of the country but have not charged them yet."
In ZimOnline, 05 December 2008.