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Zimbabwe charges 46 with treason for watching videos of Egypt protests

In Repression on February 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm

David Smith, The Guardian

Forty-six people in Zimbabwe have been charged with treason, and some allegedly beaten by police, after watching videos of the uprisings in Egypt and TunisiaThe activists, trade unionists and students were at a meeting on Saturday titled Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?, when it was raided by police who seized a video projector, two DVDs and a laptop.

The group was detained in police cells and transferred to a notorious maximum security prison on Wednesday night. Treason can be punishable by death in Zimbabwe.

Prosecutors allege that Munyaradzi Gwisai, a labour activist and former MP, and the other participants were conducting the meeting to “organise, strategise and implement the removal of the constitutional government of Zimbabwe … the Egyptian way”.

In court documents, prosecutors said those present watched video footage of the Egyptian revolt that brought down Hosni Mubarak after nearly three decades in power. They alleged that the Zimbabwean participants took turns making speeches calling for a revolt against president Robert Mugabe’s 31-year authoritarian rule.

But Gwisai’s wife, Shantha Bloemen, currently in New York, said: “The fact they had a meeting is a regular event. They often have seminars on workers’ rights. They watch documentaries about social issues and the fact they were watching the topical issues of the day is unsurprising.

“No one would deny they want a better Zimbabwe but it’s a big leap from there to say they’re planning to make a serious threat against anyone. The whole thing is ridiculous.”

Bloemen alleged incidents of police brutality. “Some of the ringleaders were definitely bruised and beaten during interrogation in the first two days. They’re being portrayed as radical lefties but they’re just regular people who want change in Zimbabwe.”

She added: “I spoke to Munya yesterday on his way to the courtroom. He was guarded on the phone and telling jokes. At that point they thought the case would be heard quickly and there was generally a lot of solidarity in the group.

“No one thought it would be a charge of treason. It’s clearly being driven by a political agenda. I think the strategy of the regime at the moment is to stall it for as long as possible for propaganda value, to instill fear in people.”

The activists, including 11 women, appeared in dirty, soiled clothing in court on Wednesday. Gwisai wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend “World at a crossroads”.

Human Rights Watch condemned the “politically motivated charges”. Daniel Bekele, its Africa director, said: “The Zimbabwe authorities should immediately free the activists and drop these outrageous charges. 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.”

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