Nobel laureate Tutu calls for Mugabe ouster

Hints at use of force; activist faces charges

Zimbabwean human rights activist Jestina Mukoko was taken to court yesterday in Harare. She is accused of trying to overthrow President Robert Mugabe, a charge that many believe is false. Zimbabwean human rights activist Jestina Mukoko was taken to court yesterday in Harare. She is accused of trying to overthrow President Robert Mugabe, a charge that many believe is false. (Desmond Kwande/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Angus Shaw
Associated Press / December 25, 2008
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HARARE, Zimbabwe - With the death toll from Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic crossing 1,100 and the country in shambles, Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu said yesterday it was time to threaten its longtime president with removal by force.

The comments came as the government of President Robert Mugabe took a human rights activist to court, accusing her and at least six others of plotting to overthrow the 84-year-old leader. The activist, Jestina Mukoko, had disappeared on Dec. 3 after nationwide protests against the country's deepening economic and health crises.

Charging Mukoko, the respected head of a group known as the Zimbabwe Peace Project, in a plot already widely dismissed as a fabrication is seen as a sign Mugabe is not prepared to back down.

In an interview with the BBC that aired yesterday, Tutu called on Mugabe to relinquish power and said he was ashamed of his own country, South Africa, for its handling of the issue.

"We have betrayed our legacy. How much more suffering is going to make us say, 'No, we have given Mr. Mugabe enough time,' " said Tutu, retired archbishop of Cape Town who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki mediated the power-sharing deal between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, and South Africa reiterated this week that the deal was the only way forward, despite new US and British opposition to it.

Mugabe has ruled the country since its 1980 independence from Britain and refused to leave office following disputed elections in March.

Asked during the interview whether Mugabe should be removed by force, Tutu said there should "certainly be the threat of it."

And he added the president should be warned that he could face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for his violent suppression of opponents.

Mukoko's court appearance came days after Tsvangirai threatened to withdraw from talks on implementing the power sharing deal unless at least 42 missing activists and opposition officials were released or charged.

Late yesterday, a judge ordered Mukoko and six other activists sent to a hospital under police guard so that allegations of torture could be investigated, a human rights lawyer said. The lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, said the seven would be in court again Monday to determine the next step, while another judge had ordered another group of about two dozen detainees released unconditionally.

Shortly before Mukoko was taken to court, human rights lawyers said they managed to locate 14 activists who had disappeared in recent weeks.

"It is our strong belief that more individuals than those disclosed to lawyers are being held in those police stations, as well as others which have not yet been visited," the lawyers said in a statement. "It is also our belief that there may be more abducted persons than those currently confirmed."

The Herald, the state-run daily, said Mukoko and the other activists with Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change would be charged with attempting to recruit fighters to overthrow Mugabe. The Herald quoted police as saying Tsvangirai's group was training fighters in Botswana.

Zimbabwean officials have repeatedly made such accusations, which have been denied by Botswana and the group. Last week, South African President Kgalema Motlanthe dismissed the allegations, saying the main regional bloc opened an investigation when Mugabe's regime first raised them last month, but "we never believed" them.

Annah Moyo, a Johannesburg-based Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, said the charges against Mukoko were "trumped up" and could be used by the Mugabe regime as an excuse to declare a state of emergency and withdraw from power-sharing talks.

The power-sharing deal, signed in September, calls for Mugabe to remain president and Tsvangirai to take the new post of prime minister. The deal stalled over a dispute about who would control key Cabinet posts and over charges Mugabe has increased harassment of dissidents.

As the political standoff continues, the country becomes increasingly imperiled.

Doctors Without Borders listed Zimbabwe's health crisis and continuing economic collapse among its "Top 10 Humanitarian Crises of 2008," noting in a report released this week that life expectancy has plummeted to just 34 years of age, according to UN figures. Because of the crisis, about 2 million people infected with the AIDS virus have been forced to skip meals or cannot afford bus fare to clinics for treatment, the relief group said.

The United Sates and Britain have said they can no longer support an arrangement that keeps Mugabe as president.

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