Harare: A prominent human rights activist and her co-accused cannot be tried — now or in the future — on terror charges because they were beaten and tortured in jail, Zimbabwe`s Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku said the court was issuing a permanent stay of prosecution in the case of Jestina Mukoko and eight other defendants because their constitutional rights had been violated.
Such a ruling from judges appointed by long-time President Robert Mugabe could signal a new willingness on his part to meet demands for reform from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, his partner in the country`s troubled unity government. But in a country that seems to lurch from promising to perilous from day to day, trends are hard to spot.
Innocent Gonese, a member of parliament from Tsvangirai`s party, said the judgment could be "the beginning of good things to come, politically," but added that scores of other party activists remain jailed or face charges.
Richard Smith, a South Africa-based human rights activist, said the ruling could show an emerging streak of independence among judges known for taking orders from Mugabe`s ZANU-PF party.
Mukoko sobbed with joy in the courtroom, telling reporters it was a "happy day for me and my family."
She had testified during a bail hearing that she had been tortured and assaulted during detention. The defendants had bloodied, swollen faces during court appearances late last year.
Accusations that Mukoko and the others had been plotting to overthrow Mugabe had been widely denounced as trumped up and politically motivated. Neighbouring governments have said they believe the allegations were baseless.
Tsvangirai had said the case undermined the coalition his former opposition party formed with Mugabe earlier this year.
The defendants had included members of Tsvangirai`s Movement for Democratic Change party, and some Zimbabweans had speculated the case was being pursued to pressure Tsvangirai to make concessions, or by Mugabe hard-liners to create tension in the unity government.
Mukoko was taken from her home in early December and held at an undisclosed location until being jailed on December 23.
An early indication that at least some in the Mugabe camp saw pursuing the case as a mistake came during a tug-of-war over bail. Mukoko was freed on bail in March, only to have a Harare magistrate revoke that in May, prompting international criticism.
A day after the magistrate`s order, Mukoko was free again. Tsvangirai had raised the issue with Mugabe, and Tsvangirai`s spokesman said they ordered the Justice Minister to make sure bail was reinstated.
Zimbabwe`s neighbours had urged Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, to form a partnership with former labour leader Tsvangirai after last year`s presidential election that was marred by violence. In forming their coalition in February, the long-time opponents pledged to work together to turn around economic and political collapse.
Since the coalition was formed, Mugabe has demanded that Tsvangirai do more to get international sanctions lifted and restore foreign aid and investment. Tsvangirai has complained about continuing human rights violations.
Both sides, though, say they see the coalition as the way forward. It is Mugabe`s only hope for taking Zimbabwe out of international isolation, and it has brought Tsvangirai closer to power than any election.
Nicole Fritz, director of the independent, South Africa-based Southern Africa Litigation Centre said whatever led the Supreme Court to issue Monday`s decision, it had set a precedent that could help others in Zimbabwe whose rights have been abused.
"At a time when things in Zimbabwe seem ... precariously perched and one is looking for a sign of whether Zimbabwe is moving forward or falling back into the abyss, this ruling must stand as some sort of positive indication," Fritz said.
Relations eased enough recently for the European Union to send in its first high-level delegation since 2002. But the delegation left on September 13 saying Europe would not remove sanctions targeting Mugabe and his loyalists or resume development aid until more is done to make power-sharing work and restore human rights.