Zimbabwe rights lawyer bail appeal postponed

A Zimbabwean court on Friday postponed a bail appeal to release the nation's top rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa.

Mtetwa was arrested March 17 on allegations of obstructing justice and will spend eight nights in jail before she reappears in court on Monday.

Her jailing and the detention of members of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's office she was defending have been described by rivals of longtime President Robert Mugabe as a campaign of intimidation ahead of elections scheduled around July.

High court judge Joseph Musakwa ruled Friday that state prosecutors needed more time to prepare for the bail hearing.

But defense attorney Harrison Nkomo said Mtetwa's appeal papers were filed early Thursday, giving prosecutors ample time to study them

"This is the state's way of punishing her by letting her spend more time in jail. We are concerned by the way the state is dragging its feet," he said.

Lawyers were planning to demonstrate outside the court Friday where Mtetwa was refused bail on Wednesday and ordered to be held in custody to April 3.

Police say Mtetwa shouted at them and caused a distraction during which three laptops with information police were looking for disappeared and were presumed to have been hidden.

Mtetwa denies any wrongdoing and says she only asked police officers to show her a valid search warrant during a raid on offices of Tsvangirai's staff on Sunday.

Obstructing justice carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

She was brought to court Tuesday after police ignored a judge's order to release her Monday.

Prosecutors oppose bail on grounds she could hinder police investigations into allegations that officials from Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change illegally collected information on high level corruption and impersonated police in doing so.

Mtetwa's prolonged detention in jail has prompted outcry from the African and international legal groups.

Mtetwa is the recipient of an array of awards from international jurists' groups including the American Bar Association over a distinguished career of three decades.

She has also defended journalists and human rights activists against prosecution by police and Mugabe loyalists in Zimbabwe's judiciary.

"There is absolutely no legal basis for her arrest and continued detention," Mtetwa's defense attorney Nkomo told The Associated Press.