(Johannesburg) - The Zimbabwe authorities should immediately investigate and reveal the whereabouts of the human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, who was taken from her home on December 3, 2008 by a group of armed men who identified themselves as policemen, Human Rights Watch said.

Mukoko, the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), a local human rights organization, was taken from her home in Norton, Harare, early in the morning by about 15 men in plain clothes - some armed with handguns - who identified themselves as police from the Law and Order section of the Zimbabwe Republic Police. The men forced Mukoko into one of two cars and drove off. She has not been seen since. Her son, who witnessed the incident, immediately informed lawyers, but they have been unable to locate her.

"Jestina Mukoko has been abducted in suspicious and alarming circumstances, and we are profoundly concerned about her well-being," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Zimbabwe authorities have a duty to locate her promptly and arrest those responsible, or be held to account."

On November 27, 2008, the authorities arrested three members of Mukoko's group in Budiriro, Harare after they tried to take pictures at an area clinic that was treating people suffering from cholera. They were charged with criminal nuisance and released two days later.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that Mukoko's abduction is part of a broader pattern of persecution of human rights defenders by the Zimbabwe police. Police in Zimbabwe routinely arrest and harass human rights activists, political activists, and other government critics. In an attempt to intimidate activists, officers from the Central Intelligence Organization and the Law and Order section often move arrested activists from police station to police station, refusing to disclose their whereabouts, and on occasion torturing and beating them while in custody.

A detention by authorities who refuse to acknowledge that they are holding the person or to reveal the person's fate or whereabouts, placing that person outside the protection of the law, is an enforced disappearance, a serious violation of international law.

"The police are obliged to respect the basic rights of individuals in their custody, and if they are holding Mukoko they should ensure her well-being and allow her access to lawyers, family, and medical care," Gagnon said.