Zimbabwe’s fragile national unity government appeared late Tuesday to have defused a major threat to its survival after the three principals to the power-sharing arrangement agreed that 18 opposition activists controversially arrested earlier in the day should be quickly released.
The meeting involving President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara had been scheduled before the activists were re-arrested in the course of a pre-trial hearing despite their earlier release on bail, sparking outrage within Mr. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change and among civil society activists.
James Maridadi, a spokesman for Tsvangirai, told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA’s Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the re-arrests of human rights monitor Jestina Mukoko and 17 others dominated the meeting called earlier to address a range of troubling issues.
Maridadi said the three principals summoned Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa to ensure that the Office of the Attorney General followed their directive for the release of the activists by Wednesday or Thursday. The agreement calls for the activists to remain free on bail during their trial on charges of plotting to overthrow Mr. Mugabe's previous government.
The activists and the MDC have rejected those charges as politically inspired.
Correspondent Thomas Chiripasi of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe reported that a Harare magistrate on Tuesday had remanded Mukoko and 14 others appearing in court to custody pending trial in a move that their lawyers called an abuse of the legal process. Three other accused not present in the courtroom were placed under police guard at a hospital.
The release of political prisoners was among the issues yet to be resolved in February when the unity government was formed, and it appeared to be well on the way to resolution last month when the last of those known to be detained were released on bail after extended efforts by their defenders - explaining why their re-arrest caused such consternation.
Other issues on the table in the negotiations among the unity government principals include the ongoing takeovers of white-owned commercial farms, which Mr. Mugabe has encouraged but which Mr. Tsvangirai has urged be halted, arguing that such farm invasions signal to the international community that the rule of law has not yet been restored in Zimbabwe.
The MDC side of the unity government has also been calling for the replacement of Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono, who has acknowledged diverting funds in hard currency from private accounts to government use, and of Attorney General Johannes Tomana. But Mr. Mugabe has resisted the pressure to sack two two of his political allies.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Tsvangirai's MDC formation roundly condemned the re-arrests saying that they constituted a violation of the global political agreement for power sharing signed in September 2008, threatening the “longevity and durability” of the inclusive government.
Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for Mr. Tsvangirai's MDC formation and minister of information and communications technology, said Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF was acting in bad faith.
Political analyst and University of Zimbabwe Professor John Makumbe commented that the new arrests shook the foundation of the tenuous unity government.