Zimbabwe court releases 4 oppo aides

Mar 27, 2013, 12:55 PM EDT
REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's High Court on Wednesday freed on bail four senior officials from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party accused of illegally collecting information on high level corruption.

Their arrests and detention are widely seen by critics of President Robert Mugabe as political intimidation ahead of crucial elections scheduled around July.

The four were arrested at offices of Tsvangirai's communications unit on March 17. They were denied bail by a Harare magistrate on March 20 on grounds they "impersonated police officers and posed a serious threat to national security." They were ordered to reappear in the same court on April 3.

Police allege the officials, Thabani Mpofu and Felix Matsinde, both former state prosecutors, and Mehluli Tshuma and Warship Dumba on Tsvangirai's staff possessed police files on corruption cases.

High court judge Chinembiri Bhunu on Wednesday ordered the four to post $500 bail each. He said they should not have been denied bail because they were well-known public figures unlikely to abscond from justice.

In ordering them held in custody, the magistrate "grossly misdirected" her ruling, said the judge.

"The magistrate's conduct betrayed the country's guiding principles on the application of the law and failed to follow laid down procedures of the presumption of innocence of the accused," Bhunu said.

He also said such a ruling is a "serious infringement of rights should the persons turn out to be innocent."

Defense attorney Chris Mhike praised Bhunu's ruling.

"We are encouraged as lawyers to see that there are still moments in the administration of justice when the law is applied as it should be," Mhike said.

Prominent Zimbabwe human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, also arrested by police while trying to represent the four officials, was released on bail Monday after spending eight nights in jail.

Mtetwa and the four officials deny any wrongdoing.

On her release, also on $500 bail, Mtetwa described the arrests as being orchestrated by police and judicial officials loyal to President Robert Mugabe.

"There will be many more arrests to follow as we near elections," Mtetwa said.

This year, police have mounted a series of raids on rights and pro-democracy groups searching for alleged subversive materials and have removed documents and equipment from their offices.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai met for their weekly consultation on Monday where the clampdown was discussed, said Luke Tamborinyoka, Tsvangirai's spokesman.

They are to schedule a meeting with police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri and "agreed that the behavior of the police was tainting the image of the country and it was creating the impression that the country is not ready for a peaceful poll," Tamborinyoka said.