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Rights Groups Call On Zimbabwe to Release Political Prisoners

A group of human rights activists in South Africa is urging the various political parties in Zimbabwe to release political prisoners and end repressive laws as part of the agreement they signed creating the new power-sharing government. Save Zimbabwe Now has vowed to maintain a campaign of hunger strikes and civil action until this is done.

Organizers voiced concern that the parties in Zimbabwe's new unity government are not moving quickly enough to dismantle repressive laws and end human rights abuses.

A South African activist who recently returned from Zimbabwe, Bunie Matlanyane Sexwale, said many Zimbabwean civic groups feel that the drive to restore civil rights and individual freedoms is stalling.

"This underlies the lack of people participation," he said. "The majority of them [activists] were saying they want those people released. No compromise. Because they are being detained unlawfully. They are in a very dire situation health-wise."

The activists say despite the launch of a unity government 10 days ago, dozens of human rights leaders and members of the former opposition party remain in jail. Some of them have been detained for months without legal counsel or medical attention.

The power-sharing accord, mediated by the Southern African Development Community, brought long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai into government as prime minister along side veteran President Robert Mugabe.

Both leaders have pledged to work together to revive Zimbabwe's ailing economy.

Mr. Tsvangirai, speaking to supporters at a rally Sunday in Gweru, appealed for reconciliation and understanding.

"The process of an inclusive government in a transition is the only solution to resolve our big problems that we have got," he said. "Please support us in this endeavor."

But the leader of the Save Zimbabwe campaign, Kumi Naidoo, said the unity government will only succeed if it releases political prisoners, accelerates efforts to help suffering Zimbabweans and ends repressive legislation.

"For the deal, the agreement to actually stick, we should urge SADC that it considers involving Zimbabwean civil society in the monitoring of that deal," said Naidoo.

The rights group in January launched the campaign of fasting and civic action that has received support from thousands of people around the world. It says it will continue the campaign until change occurs in Zimbabwe.