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Zimbabwe activists on trial for alleged Egyptian revolt-inspired plot

After attending a seminar on recent events in North Africa, the Zimbabwean activists were arrested on charges of treason, but today had those charges reduced

Nada Hussein, Monday 18 Jul 2011
Zimbabwe - Munyaradzi Gwisai
Former parliament member and opposition figure Munyaradzi Gwisai (centre) appearing in the court hearing on February 24th, 2011 as he faces treason charges for showing a video about the Egyptian revolution. Source: AP

Six Zimbabwean activists face high-profile charges in Zimbabwe, upon having attended a seminar about the Egyptian revolution in February where they are accused of "plotting a similar uprising." Their trial, scheduled for 18 July, has now been adjourned until 22 August when they will face the lesser charge of inciting violence, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence.

“Documentary” treason

According to a BBC report, the arrested activists face the death penalty if proven guilty of treason. The report says the prosecution has accused the activists of “planning a similar revolt” to the one that happened in Egypt, based on their attendance at a seminar on 19 February given by law professor Munyaradzi Gwisai and focused on working class issues in North Africa. During the seminar a video about the Egyptian revolution was shown, followed by a lecturer asking “what lessons can be learnt?” This incident was used in court to accuse the activists of planning to overthrow the government in Zimbabwe, following the lead of Egypt and Tunisia.

On 23 February, police forces attacked the seminar and arrested attendees, who were then accused of treason. Today, the charges against the activists were reduced to “inciting public violence,” which carries a penalty of 10 years jail time.

The activists are affiliated with the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The organisation stated on its website that 45 of its activists were arrested by the authorities and accused of treason after watching videos on the Arab spring.

Months later, an international campaign initiated by the ISO resulted in dropping treason charges against 40 of the activists. The remaining activists, along with the seminar’s lecturer, had faced the possibility of death if proven guilty of treason.

Torture Claims

The ISO released a statement on 17 July announcing that one of the 45 activists who were arrested in February had died in the evening on Thursday, 14 July as his “health never recovered after he was held in solitary confinement during February and March.” Upon the arrest, various entities condemned the Zimbabwean authorities for detaining the activists. Reports and testimonies were given about the police using violence against the detainees during their imprisonment. 

A New York Times report on 28 February stated that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture had confirmed that he had written to the Zimbabwean government “to express concern about allegations that state security agents had assaulted the 45 activists.” The torture investigator also stated that he had not yet received a response from the Zimbabwean authorities.

Gwisai was a former member of parliament and belongs to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the strongest opposition entity in Zimbabwe, and is part of a shared-power government with President Mugabe’s party. The MDC has withstood long-standing conflicts with Mugabe’s regime as its main rival. In the Times report, a spokesman for the MDC condemned the arrests and stated that “more than 200 of his party’s members had been arrested since the beginning of the year alone, including 10 members of Parliament, three of whom remain jailed.”

Gwisai’s wife spoke to a leftist website about the torture of activists, saying “the arrestees were beaten during the first two days in detention. Medical attention has been denied, including to those in urgent need of care.”

Due process violations

Newspapers covering the trial reported that defence lawyers were informed that their clients were facing treason charges 10 minutes before the first trial on 28 February, and also that the court denied the lawyers access to the defendants after the hearing. Additionally, the activists were held at a police station from 19 February until the 23rd without charges.

“Events in Egypt and Tunisia show that the basis of legitimate power in democratic societies lies with the people. Marches, singing and protests are fundamental human rights through which people can address those who govern them,” Gwisai’s wife told the court, as reported by Associated Press on 28 February.

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