Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has extended for up to a month the detention period for a range of political and economic crimes.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa says the presidential detention decree is aimed at helping police save time and frequent court appearances in connection with a growing number of economic crimes.

Much less publicized in the state-controlled media is the fact that the decree affects the much feared Section 5 of Zimbabwe's Security laws, under which hundreds of mostly opposition supporters, officials and activists have been arrested on charges of subverting a constitutional government.

Until now, Section 5 political detainees could apply for bail and be freed within 48 hours after arrest. Under the new decree, they can be jailed for up to a month, without being charged and without a bail hearing.

Human rights lawyers and academics have condemned the presidential decree as an infringement of basic human rights.

One of Zimbabwe's most outspoken human rights lawyers, Lovemore Madhuku, said the new law is unconstitutional because it was not adopted by parliament. Mr. Madhuku, who has been jailed frequently during the past three years, alleges he has been regularly beaten and tortured in police custody.

He says the decree opens the door for abuse by police and opponents of the ruling ZANU-PF party.

Movement for Democratic Change member of parliament, and its secretary for justice, David Coltart, says the decree gives the Zimbabwe government powers equivalent to those in place during a state of emergency, without having to declare one.

He said several opposition MDC members are currently in police custody in the second city Bulawayo, charged under Section 5. He said the new law will be used "preventatively or punitively, to detain those who promote peaceful and non-violent civil disobedience."

"Given the Zimbabwe government's reputation for torturing its opponents in police custody," he said, the new decree will be used to physically abuse those perceived as enemies of the ruling ZANU-PF more effectively, and to deny them timely medical treatment.