Church workers handed over to immigration authorities for likely deportation

Five foreign Lutheran church workers detained on suspicion of violating Zimbabwe's strict media laws were handed over to immigration authorities Tuesday for likely deportation, their lawyer said.

The group, including an American, a Finn, a Kenyan and two Germans had been held under house arrest at their hotel in the mining village of Zvishavane, 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Harare since Saturday. They did not appear in court and were not charged, said lawyer Romualdo Mavedzenge said.

"The likelihood is they will be deported. That is what police have indicated," he said.

They were being driven by immigration officials to their offices in the provincial capital of Gweru and then to Harare, he said.

"This is more of a face saver. They really didn't have any evidence to arrest them," said Mavedzenge. The group was scheduled to leave Zimbabwe anyway Tuesday to visit aid projects in nearby Malawi, also hit by hunger.

The church workers arrived in Zimbabwe on Friday and had planned to write reports on church assistance to AIDS and hunger victims and development work in western Zimbabwe for the forthcoming Lutheran centenary "Healing the World" gathering.

Diplomats said they planned to use the information for fund-raising for aid projects in Zimbabwe and other developing countries.

More than half Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people are in danger of hunger in the coming months. Aid groups have blamed the crisis on erratic rains and the chaos caused by the government's land reform program, which seized most of the nation's white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to blacks.

State radio reported Tuesday police accused the five of being foreign journalists working in Zimbabwe without government accreditation, an offense punishable by up to two years in jail.

The radio said the group entered Zimbabwe on tourist visas, which the group has denied.

Kathleen Kastilahn, 56, from Chicago, said the group showed routine business visas at immigration on arrival in Harare.

The other church workers were identified as Rolf af Hallstrom, of Helsinki, Finland, Ute Heers and photographer Falk Orth, both from Germany, and Pauline Mumia, a Kenyan.

Earlier, the state media reported the five were "suspected of being journalists sent into the country to secretly write stories aimed at tarnishing the image of the government."

Kastilahn said the group had shown police an agenda for inspecting feeding stations and other humanitarian projects in western Zimbabwe.

When they first arrived at their hotel in Zvishavane, they were met by plainclothes police who told them they were harboring spies, searched them and confiscated their personal papers, laptop computers, cameras and film, she said.

Police have arrested 14 local independent journalists in the past year on charges of violating the media laws. Only one has been tried and was acquitted.

Foreign journalists have been barred entry without government accreditation that is routinely refused.

The government has been irked by repeated visits by foreign journalists who declared themselves tourists and evaded detection while reporting on the country's deepening economic and political crisis.