Zimbabwean police have defied a high court order to release a prominent human-rights lawyer arrested in a weekend raid, her lawyers said yesterday, fanning fears of a crackdown on activists ahead of elections this year.
Police arrested Beatrice Mtetwa and four officials from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in one of the party's offices in the capital Harare on Sunday.
Tsvangirai has not commented on the detentions yet, but they will likely put more strain on his fragile power-sharing agreement with President Robert Mugabe.
Former opposition chief Tsvangirai went into government with his rival Mugabe after a violent and disputed vote in 2008.
The two have had a stormy relationship and Tsvangirai has accused the veteran leader of using the security services to intimidate his supporters in the past - a charge Mugabe denies.
Mtetwa was charged with "obstructing the course of justice", local media reported. The MDC members were charged with "impersonating police", the force said on Sunday.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights group, which is representing Mtetwa, said it had obtained a high-court order for her release, but police continued to detain her.
"The police refused to comply with the order," the group said in a statement, adding it might ask to have the police declared in contempt of court.
Several African legal groups condemned the arrest, saying Mtetwa had been charged after demanding police produce a search warrant for the raid.
"Without a clear and unambiguous departure from a past characterised by harassment and intimidation of human-rights defenders and by impunity for Zimbabwe's police and security sector, the promise of the new constitution will be laid to waste," the Pan African Lawyers Union and other groups said.
The arrests came a day after Zimbabwe held a referendum on a new constitution to curb the powers of the presidency and pave the way for elections later this year. Backed by both Mugabe and the MDC, the referendum is expected to pass.
The new charter would set a maximum of two five-year terms for the president. The limit will not apply retroactively, so the 89-year-old Mugabe could still rule for another two terms.
Officials say results of the Saturday referendum will be announced this week, but are largely expected to show overwhelming support for the draft charter.
Results posted outside polling stations and a tally of more that half a million votes compiled by Tsvangirai's party showed more than 90 per cent in favour.
Mugabe has ruled uninterrupted since independence from Britain in 1980, despite a series of disputed and violent polls and a severe economic crash propelled by hyperinflation.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse