By Nelson Banya
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe police have defied a high court order to release a prominent human rights lawyer, her attorneys said on Monday, prompting accusations of a campaign of intimidation ahead of an election this year.
Police arrested Beatrice Mtetwa and four officials from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in one of the party's offices in the capital Harare on Sunday.
Tsvangirai accused President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the police of running a campaign of intimidation to ruin the chances of a free and fair vote in the election that is expected at some point this year.
"These are signs of a police force that has become an appendage of a political party, which party is now showing signs of panic and fear in light of the imminent prospects of losing the forthcoming election," he said.
Former opposition chief Tsvangirai went into government with his rival Mugabe after a violent and disputed vote in 2008.
The two have had a stormy relationship and Tsvangirai has accused the veteran leader of using the security services to intimidate his supporters in the past - charges Mugabe denies.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights group, which is representing Mtetwa, said it had obtained a high court order for her release at 2 a.m., but police continued to detain her. She was still in custody by Monday afternoon.
"The police refused to comply with the order," the group said in a statement, adding it may ask to have the police declared in contempt of court.
The arrests came a day after Zimbabwe held a referendum on a new constitution to curb the powers of the presidency and pave the way for elections later this year. Backed by both Mugabe and the MDC, the referendum is expected to pass.
The new charter would set a maximum of two five-year terms for the president. The limit will not apply retroactively, so the 89-year-old Mugabe could still rule for another two terms.
Officials say results of the Saturday referendum will be announced this week, but are largely expected to show overwhelming support for the draft charter.
Mtetwa was charged with "obstructing the course of justice", local media reported. The MDC members were charged with "impersonating police", police told Reuters on Sunday.
It was not immediately clear why the MDC officials were believed to have posed as members of the state security force and police did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Monday.
Several African legal groups condemned the arrest, saying Mtetwa had been charged after demanding police produce a search warrant for the raid.
"Without a clear and unambiguous departure from a past characterised by harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and by impunity for Zimbabwe's police and security sector, the promise of the new constitution will be laid to waste," the Pan African Lawyers Union and other groups said.
Mugabe, Africa's oldest president, has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980.
He slipped into Italy on Monday for the inauguration of Pope Francis and officials went to some lengths to play down the technical infringement of a European Union travel ban imposed over allegations of vote rigging and human rights abuses.
(Editing by David Dolan and Alison Williams)