Zimbabwe court orders probe into torture claims

HARARE, Jan 8 (Reuters) - A Zimbabwean court on Thursday ordered an investigation into allegations of torture brought against the police by opposition activists charged with plotting to topple President Robert Mugabe.

The seven, including a close aide of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, are charged with plotting insurrection, sabotage, banditry and terrorism. The arrests have added to doubts over chances of a political power-sharing deal.

The activists deny the charges against them and say they were tortured while in police custody. Their lawyers are seeking their release, arguing that they were abducted and not arrested properly.

"The court orders the attorney general's office to order police to investigate complaints by the accused and report by January 23," Magistrate Olivia Mariga said.

The activists' arrests have raised tensions in the country, dimming hopes that a power-sharing deal signed by Mugabe and Tsvangirai last September could be implemented. Tsvangirai has threatened to pull out of the unity deal over the arrests.

The deal has been seen as a chance to rescue Zimbabwe from total economic collapse.

The court hearing will continue on Friday.

Defence lawyer Alec Muchadehama told the court his clients were facing politically motivated charges.

"There is no doubt that this case is a wholly made-up case. The accused are all MDC activists, that's what this case is about," Muchadehama said.

"Politics should be left to politicians, who should not abuse the courts for political reasons."

In a separate case, Zimbabwe's police have charged nine other activists, including rights campaigner Jestina Mukoko, with recruiting or attempting to recruit people for military action against Mugabe's government.

Opposition leader Tsvangirai won more votes than Mugabe in a presidential vote in March, but fell short of an outright win. Mugabe won a one-man run-off after Tsvangirai pulled out citing violence against his supporters.