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Zimbabwe's jailed 'must be freed'

Jestina Mukoko (left) arriving at the magistrate's court in Harare on Wednesday 24 December 2008
Activists have led a high-profile campaign to free Jestina Mukoko (l)

Human rights group Amnesty International has urged the coalition government taking over in Zimbabwe to release all political prisoners.

Long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had said he would refuse to become prime minister until his jailed supporters and activists were freed.

However, he was sworn in on Wednesday without them being released.

The nominated finance minister, Tendai Biti, told the BBC it was a "confidence issue" and they must be freed soon.

President Robert Mugabe, who leads Zanu-PF and has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years, has promised to co-operate in the unity government with Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

FROM FOCUS ON AFRICA
MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti

Correspondents say the release of political prisoners will be seen as an indication of whether the two men's parties can work together.

A final deal on power-sharing was reached in January, after Mr Tsvangirai returned to Zimbabwe following an absence of more than two months for fresh talks with Mr Mugabe.

"For nearly a decade the people of Zimbabwe have endured immense suffering as a result of the government's policies against perceived opponents," says Amnesty International's Zimbabwe researcher Simeon Mawanza.

"It's against this background that we are calling on President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to take concrete steps to demonstrate their government's commitment to internationally recognised human rights.

Gugulethu Moyo, a Zimbabwean lawyer who works for the International Bar Association, says people will not be as patient with Mr Tsvangirai as they have been with Mr Mugabe.

'Forgive, not forget'

The prime minister has vowed to bring an end to political violence and said his government will make food "available and affordable", and has promised to focus on the cholera crisis that has killed more than 3,400 people.

He has also promised that all public sector workers are to be paid in foreign currency - without saying how this would be done.

"He's promising a great dealů and we have to hold him to account for that," Ms Moyo told BBC World TV.

"For instance, he called on the authorities to release certain people who are being held on political grounds and he said he wouldn't go into government until that happened - that hasn't happened, so already [he's given ground]," she said.

STATE OF ZIMBABWE
Five million people - almost half population - need food aid
Hyperinflation
Unemployment of 90%
About 3,400 people killed in cholera outbreak

At least 30 political detainees are known to be in custody at present - the most high-profile of whom is human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, who denies charges of organising military training to topple President Mugabe.

Mr Biti, who was arrested and spent time in custody last year on treason charges, told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme that it was imperative such "state brutality" stopped.

"I'll forgive, but I can't forget," he said about his experiences, "but what is critical is to make sure that what has happened to me - and I'm lucky in that I'm alive - never happens again to anyone."

He added that the prison service also desperately needed reform.

"How a government full of people - liberators - that spent years in those jails would have reproduced and left intact those same jails for 28 years... it is appalling."

'Sanity'

Mr Biti, who is to be sworn in with the rest of the cabinet on Friday, said he would be outlining steps to tackle Zimbabwe's economic collapse next week.

We're going to have tears on our faces... but I'm quite sure at the end of the day we'll all have smiles
Tendai Biti
Finance minister designate

The country faces rampant inflation, which Mr Biti estimates to be at a rate well into trillions of percent, a cholera epidemic and 90% unemployment.

The international community has promised additional aid to the country only if real changes take place.

"I don't think there's any been any greater sceptic of this agreement than myself, but the fact that I'm now in is a reflection that this thing has to be given a chance," Mr Biti said.

"It's going to be an exciting period, a challenging period. We're going to have tears on our faces... but I'm quite sure at the end of the day we'll all have smiles."

One bone of contention between the MDC and Zanu-PF has been over the central bank governor, Gideon Gono - who can only be sacked with permission of Mr Mugabe.

"It's not about Gono [per se], it's about bring sanity and normalcy to the Reserve Bank.

"But let's not beat about the bush, the position of the MDC is that Gono has to go and I will have to implement it."

Infographic showing power-sharing deal



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