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Zimbabwe sect leader held after 251 children rescued from farm labour

By Nyasha Chingono

HARARE (Reuters) - A Zimbabwean sect leader and "self-styled prophet" appeared in court on Thursday charged with child abuse after police raided his farm and rescued more than 200 children doing physical labour, police said.

The children "were subjected to abuse as cheap labour, doing manual work in the name of being taught life skills", a police statement said.

Police found 251 children on the farm who were not attending school, most of whom did not have birth certificates. They also found 16 graves, including seven for infants, all which were unregistered, the statement said.

Ishmael Chokurongerwa, 56, described by police as a self-styled prophet, was arrested this week along with seven of his church members following a raid on their farm in Nyabira, about 30 km (18 miles) west of the capital, Harare.

"I can confirm that they appeared in court today. There are many charges. We are still investigating, so more charges may come up," police spokesperson Paul Nyathi told Reuters.

No pleas were taken.

State media outlet H-Metro said that Chokurongerwa and his accomplices had been remanded in custody to March 19 for a bail ruling. They are facing two counts of violating the Burial and Cremation Act and the Children's Act, it said.

Video from the raid showed dozens of women and children dressed in white sitting under a tree and singing. Some were later taken away in buses escorted by police cars.

Zimbabwe is a majority Christian country where apostolic sects are common.

Chokurongerwa, also known as Madzibaba Ishmael, was identified in the police statement as a leader in the Johane Masowe or "white garment" church. Its followers have previously been accused of abuse of women and children and are known for practising child marriages.

(Reporting by Nyasha Chingono; Editing by Nellie Peyton and Nick Macfie)