HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ President Robert Mugabe challenged four top judges to resign Sunday, imperiling the independence of Zimbabwe's judiciary and, indirectly, the country's free press.

Mugabe accused three Supreme Court judges and one High Court judge of ``an outrageous and deliberate act of impudence'' for speaking out against the illegal detention of two Zimbabwean journalists, who were also allegedly tortured.

``We, as a state, cannot trust (these judges) any longer,'' Mugabe said. ``The one and only honorable course open to them is that of quitting the bench.''

In a nationwide TV and radio broadcast in the southern African nation, Mugabe also angrily denounced The Standard newspaper's publisher, Clive Wilson, and its owner, Clive Murphy, as well as two outspoken human rights activists.

Mugabe charged that Michael Auret of the Roman Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, lawyer David Coltart and the journalists were ``bent on ruining our national unity and the loyalty of our people.''

He threatened ``very stern measures'' against what he described as acts of sabotage ``by white persons of British extraction ... and those who have elected to be their puppets.''

Last week, Supreme Court judges Nicholas McNally, Simbarashe Muchechetere and Wilson Sandura warned in a letter to Mugabe that the government was inviting anarchy by ignoring two High Court orders to release editor Mark Chavunduka, editor of The Standard.

Chavunduka was illegally detained by military police and a week later Ray Choto, a Standard reporter, was also arrested. After their release, both journalists produced a medical report that said they suffered electric shock torture, severe beatings and near-drowning suffocation torture while in detention.

Defense Minister Moven Mahachi denied the allegations, saying the journalists ``probably scratched themselves.''

In the letter to Mugabe, the three Supreme Court judges had called on him to curb abuses of human rights and civil law by state agencies, including the military.

Mugabe said the judges had no constitutional right to instruct him to intervene on ``purported'' abuses of the law. High Court Judge Ishmael Adam drew Mugabe's ire because he also criticized the military regarding the case.

There was no immediate reaction from the judges to Mugabe's speech. Legal experts say only Supreme Court Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay can fire the four judges.

Mugabe's statement is likely to fuel criticism of his heavy-handed style of ruling this southeast African country, which is in an economic crisis and embroiled in the war in Congo.

Britain, the United States and the European Union have previously protested the government's alleged abuse of human and legal rights and called for a public investigation.

Chavunduka and Choto were arrested for a report in The Standard on Jan. 10 that 23 soldiers, including seven officers, were arrested for plotting to overthrow Mugabe for economic mismanagement and the deployment of 8,000 troops to back Congolese President Laurent Kabila.

The government denied the report and described it as treasonable.

The journalists are to appear in court later this month on a charge that they published false information likely to cause fear, alarm and despondency. The charge carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail.