Munyaradzi Gwisai, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) general coordinator, and 45 others were charged in Zimbabwe today with treason, which carries the death penalty, or subverting a constitutionally elected government, for which the maximum penalty is 20 years imprisonment. The charges stem from a meeting the plaintiffs allegedly held, by invitation, and participants, although invited, were subjected to thorough vetting before being allowed into a room which was kept under lock and key. In this room they allegedly complained that “in Zimbabwe, there was a long authoritarian leadership , general hunger, poverty, unemployment and capitalist practices where wealth was enjoyed by a few individuals while the general populace of Zimbabwe was suffering.”
According to reports they had also watched videos of the protests in North Africa and discussed the implications of the wave of popular sentiment sweeping the region. The meeting was organized by Munyaradzi Gwisai, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe’s law school, and was aimed at enabling people without Internet access or cable TV to watch news reports about the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Police confiscated a video projector, two DVD discs and a laptop. Alec Muchadehama, a human rights lawyer, said that Gwisai was one of seven of the detainees to be beaten with truncheons. “This is a message that ‘If you attempt anything, we’re going to arrest you, assault you, incarcerate you, lay false charges against you, deny you bail and occupy you with false trials,’That’s the message — ‘Don’t attempt this, it can’t be done here.'” Lawyers were not able to interview the detainees for almost 48 hours.
Muchadehama said Gwisai and the other participants were merely engaged in “an academic debate about what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt.” While some reports say the attendees were mainly students, Harare provincial police spokesperson Inspector James Sabau said they were from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the Zimbabwe National Students’ Union (Zinasu) and other unions.
“On February 19 it is said Gwisai invited people from ZCTU, students from Zinasu, Medical Professionals and Allied Workers’ Union and International Socialist Organisation to attend a meeting with a theme — ISO calls on workers, students and the working people to support the struggle in solidarity with Egyptian and Tunisian workers,” said Sabau. “The agenda of the meeting was the revolt in Egypt and Tunisia — what lessons can be learnt for the working class in Zimbabwe and Africa. Videos of the uprising in Egypt and revolts in Tunisia were being shown to the guests who attended as a way to motivate the people to subvert a constitutionally-elected government.” Sabau said police would not allow any plots to take Zimbabwe the Egypt way and would clamp down mercilessly on plotters of any revolts.
Human Rights Watch has issued the following statement: “The Zimbabwe authorities should immediately free the activists and drop these outrageous charges,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Arresting people for watching a video on the historic events in the Middle East is a transparent pretext to block peaceful criticism of the government.”
Mugabe, the 87 year old president who has held power since 1980, has announced plans for an election this year and Human Rights Watch has documented a corresponding increase in brutality and intimidation particularly directed at anyone associated with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party. Gwisai is a former MDC MP.
The MDC party has issued a statement calling for the immediate release of the 46 prisoners.
It is inconceivable for the police to assume that a mere 46 people can topple a government by simply viewing old video footage from Tunisia and Egypt. The video material is already in the public domain and can be accessed by anyone from anywhere in the world. The actions by the police are a clear sign that the guilty are always afraid.
We are concerned by the continued abuse of State machinery by Zanu PF to suppress the people’s views for narrow political gains by Zanu PF officials. We find it strange that the police can find the machinery and manpower to arrest innocent people when it is failing to do the same to Zanu PF hooligans who are fanning political violence in Mbare and in the rural areas.
A Facebook page announces:
“Egypt style protests spread…….from Tunisia to Zimbabwe”
ZIMBABWE MILLION CITIZEN MARCH
“Power in numbers to remove dictatorship”
Events : MASS PROTESTS
Date:- Tuesday, 1 March, 2011
(no work, no school, no college…only protests)
Central Event – HARARE GARDENS, HARARE
Time: – 11.00am ~ until Mugabe’s Resignation
Participants: – Everyone
*Bring everyone, text your friends, call your family *
**ORGANIZATIONS & GROUPS TO SELF ORGANIZE AND COME OUT IN LARGE NUMBERS**
The Zimbabwe Mail is reprinting an email today from the same group which includes the statements:
The protest is intended to demand the immediate cessation and an end to the dictatorial regime misruling Zimbabwe . In addition, the mass demonstrations countrywide will convey anger and concern about the suffering of Zimbabweans from brutal economic, military, political and social repression under the regime of Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980.
Inspired by the revolution for democracy by the people of Tunisia and Egypt , Zimbabweans urge the pro democracy and freedom loving people across the globe to stand together and demand the immediate removal of Dictator Robert Mugabe and his cronies.
Zimbabweans will demand:
1) Robert Mugabe’s resignation, regime change.
2) An end to political violence and all repressive policies.
3) Recognition and respect of the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association and the press.
4) Recognition and respect of the legitimate role of Zimbabwe human rights defenders and civil society activists and organizations.
5) Freedom, Justice, Fair Elections, Progress and Development.
Another Facebook group is entitled simply Mugabe Must Go, while a third has been set up to stand in solidarity with Munyaradzi Gwisai, and his 45 fellow prisoners. According to this group, the charge of treason, which carries the death penalty, was just introduced today at the hearing.
Meanwhile, the prosecution had sprung new charges on the accused at the last minute – the lawyers for the accused weren’t even aware of them until they all got to court. The extra charge is Treason. The first charge of “Plotting to subvert the government through unconstitutional means” is now just the back-up charge.
Having had all the charges read out to them, at least 5 did not understand what they were being charged for, understandably. So the Magistrate ordered all the 52 to report back tomorrow (Thursday).
Image credit: the facebook profile of the march organizer.