Zimbabwean opposition activists bruised, battered and bloodied – reportedly by police while in custody – have been temporarily released, their lawyer said.
Police released the activists into the custody of their lawyers last night after taking them back to the magistrates court in Harare, and they will return to court this morning, said Beatrice Mtetwa, a lawyer for the group.
“The fact that there was no prosecutor, no magistrate, no court officials - only police – says a lot,” she said. “It says that we are in a police state.”
Mtetwa said the activists had not been formally discharged from a hospital when police loaded them onto trucks and took them back to the magistrates court in Harare. They had made an earlier appearance yesterday.
About 12 of the 50 detained activists remained at the hospital during the second appearance at the court, including main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Mtetwa said.
Tsvangirai, the leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and colleagues from other opposition and civic groups were ferried in ambulances and buses from the court to a private hospital after the state agreed to let all those detained receive medical attention.
Many of them sustained severe bruising and internal injuries after police raided a prayer meeting on Sunday that authorities had declared illegal.
Mtetwa said the state intended to charge the activists with incitement to violence for holding the prayer meeting. Formal bail had not been granted to any of them, she said.
“We do not know why we are going back to court, if there is a case against them or not,” she said.
Mtetwa criticised police and the state, saying they defied a court order on Monday to charge the activists by noon (10pm Irish time) yesterday or release them.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called yesterday for the “immediate and unconditional release of the opposition activists.
“The world community again has been shown that the regime of (President) Robert Mugabe is ruthless and repressive and creates only suffering for the people of Zimbabwe,” said Rice.
Mtetwa said the police forced Tsvangirai and many of the others to lie face down and then beat them savagely and repeatedly with truncheons both at the scene of the arrests and at police stations.
Tsvangirai boarded the ambulance at the court unaided, but was disorientated, wore a soiled, unbuttoned shirt and showed head wounds and swelling around his head.
Supporters sang, chanted and waved the opposition’s open hand salute. Tsvangirai did not respond but others in the vehicles returned the salute.
Several others wore bandages, one was taken from court on a stretcher, two stumbled on crutches and a young woman activist unable to walk was helped into an ambulance by paramedics.
Tsvangirai and several colleagues were allegedly tortured after being arrested when police used tear gas, water cannons and live ammunition to crush Sunday’s gathering by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, a coalition of opposition, church and civic groups, at a sports ground in Harare’s western township of Highfield.
One opposition activist, identified as Gift Tandare, was shot dead by police on Sunday. Two mourners were slightly injured yesterday at his funeral in skirmishes with police, witnesses said.
British Ambassador Andrew Pockock, who was in court, said the right side of Tsvangirai’s face was swollen, as were his bloodshot eyes.
“It was damn barbaric,” he told reporters.
Arthur Mutambara, leader of a breakaway faction of Tsvangirai’s party, also had head wounds and Lovemore Madhuku, head of a militant reform group, suffered a broken arm.
“It’s been a grave mistake by government. This has done more for reunification of the opposition than formal talks could have done,” Pockock said.
As the clampdown continued, police raided the main office of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions yesterday.
“Staff were harassed, threatened, some were slapped and beaten up. All offices were searched and flyers, files and some video tapes were seized,” the labour organisation said in a statement. Its financial administrator Galileo Chirebvu was taken away by police who said they were looking for “subversive material.”
The federation has called for a national protest strike in early April to shut down the economy.
US Ambassador Christopher Dell told the BBC that the US government holds Mugabe and his government personally accountable for the well being and safety of the detained activists.
“We’re all deeply shocked and saddened that the government of Zimbabwe feels that it has to resort to such brutal tactics against its own people,” said Dell.
He also expressed disappointment at what he called the passivity of neighbouring states, including South Africa, in the face of the suffering of Zimbabweans.
The United Nations, the European Union, Amnesty International and the human rights committee of the International Bar Association also have expressed concern and condemnation.
Mugabe’s opponents blame him for acute food shortages, inflation of some 1,600% – the highest in the world – and repression and corruption.
They have demanded the ousting of 83-year-old Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s only ruler since independence from Britain in 1980.
Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said opposition activists had attacked police and were to blame for the latest violence, according to state radio.
Authorities suspected an “underground movement” of opponents was planning a violent campaign against the government, he said.
Nathan Shamuyarira, chief spokesman for Mugabe’s ruling party, said Tsvangirai defied a police ban on Sunday’s meeting.
“Tsvangirai really asked for the trouble in which he has found himself,” he told South African state television.