Zimbabwe socialists tortured

Nicole Colson reports on the latest news about the arrest and torture of members of the International Socialist Organization in Zimbabwe.

Munyaradzi Gwisai (center with glasses) sits with fellow activists outside a court house in HarareMunyaradzi Gwisai (center with glasses) sits with fellow activists outside a court house in Harare

ACTIVISTS IN Zimbabwe are facing torture, prison and a possible death sentence for the "crime" of holding a meeting to discuss the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

Forty-five activists, students and trade unionists were arrested in Harare on February 19 during a meeting to discuss events in Egypt and Tunisia, and commemorate the life of HIV activist Navigator Mungoni. (Initial reports put the number of those arrested at 52.) The meeting was called by Munyaradzi Gwisai, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe's law school, general coordinator of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) of Zimbabwe, and a former member of Zimbabwe's parliament.

According to reports, state security agents broke into the meeting, seizing laptop computers, DVDs and a video projector, before arresting the dozens in attendance. The offending DVDs allegedly included clips from BBC World News and Al Jazeera. Members of Zimbabwe's secret police may have been undercover in the group.

What you can do

Send an urgent e-mail to Zimbabwean officials calling for the activists and socialists to be released immediately and unharmed.

Include these e-mail addresses in the "To" line: info33@zimbabwe-embassy.us, consular@zimbabwe-embassy.us, gapare@zimbabwe-embassy.us, mhute@zimbabwe-embassy.us, goora@zimbabwe-embassy.us, chinoingira@zimbabwe-embassy.us, masoso@zimbabwe-embassy.us, nyamapfeni@zimbabwe-embassy.us and mukupe@zimbabwe-embassy.us.

Forward your message separately to these supporters of democracy, so they have a record of who has appealed to the regime: socialismfrombelow@gmail.com, ashley_fataar@yahoo.co.uk, shanthabloemen@gmail.com.

Join the Facebook group "Calling for the Release of Zimbabwean Activists" for updates on the case and solidarity actions.

Those arrested are now facing charges of treason and "subverting a constitutionally elected government"--with a possible death sentence if found guilty.

In a court appearance on February 23, Gwisai detailed the torture that he and others have been subjected to while in detention at the Harare Central Police Station. As The Zimbabwean recounted:

During the torture sessions, which were recorded on video, the detainees were asked to recount what had transpired during their meeting...

Gwisai said each of the six detainees [with him during the interrogation] received a series of lashes which were administered while they lay down on their stomachs. He added that he received between 15 and 20 lashes as the police and his tormentors sought to obtain confessions from him and the other detainees.

Gwisai said the pain which he endured and suffered as a result of the torture sessions was "indescribable, sadistic and a tragedy for Zimbabwe." The University of Zimbabwe labor law lecturer said it was extremely difficult for him to sit and walk because of the torture sessions he underwent together with other detainees.

As of March 1, none of those arrested had received any medical care since being taken into custody. This includes people who are HIV-positive, as well as one person who recently had brain surgery.

According to the New York Times:

A lawyer for the detainees told [United Nations torture investigator Juan E. Méndez] that a dozen of the 45 activists had been beaten with broomsticks, metal rods and blunt objects on their bodies and the soles of their feet. They were tortured to force them to testify for the state, and they have since been denied medical care for their injuries, the lawyer said.

Another court hearing is scheduled for March 7, when a magistrate is expected to rule on whether there was reasonable suspicion to arrest the activists. Until then, they remain imprisoned.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

STATE PROSECUTOR Edmore Nyazamba claims the meeting was an attempt to foment an uprising against the regime of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe appears to have escalated attacks on his political rivals in recent months in advance of upcoming elections. While the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is urging elections be delayed until constitutional reforms can be put in place, Mugabe's ZANU-PF party is pressing ahead, and carrying out a campaign of intimidation and violence that appears to be escalating--particularly in the wake of the recent political upheavals that ousted dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and threaten others across the Middle East and North Africa.

According to Wired.com's Sam Gustin, a relative of one of the detainees who asked to remain anonymous described the attack on the activists as "a pre-emptive strike" by Mugabe. "It's a clear indication of the fear and paranoia of this regime," the relative added.

As lawyer Alec Muchadehama told the New York Times, "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.'"

More than 200 MDC members have reportedly been imprisoned by the Mugabe regime since early January--including 10 members of Parliament, three of whom are remain behind bars.

Despite a court granting them bail, opposition member of parliament Douglas Mwonzora and nearly two dozen other people remain imprisoned on charges of "public violence" after a meeting they were attending was broken up. Mwonzora is co-chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing the development of a new constitution. "It's all prosecution to persecute," Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for the MDC, told the New York Times. "Only a government afraid of its people and that has a guilty conscience would be in perennial combat with its own citizens."

Mugabe and his ZANU-PF were leaders of the anti-colonial struggle that won independence for Zimbabawe and the party was associated with some reforms in the early years of its rule, but Mugabe's reign is plainly a tyranny.

He has often relied on violence to suppress his political opponents and democracy. Meanwhile, a small circle of cronies around Mugabe has thrived while the mass of ordinary Zimbabweans struggle in abject poverty. More than 75 percent of Zimbabweans live below the official poverty line of approximately $41 per month, and average life expectancy in 2008 was just 44 years.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

FOR THEIR work in promoting democracy, Gwisai and the Zimbabwe ISO have been targeted by the Mugabe regime before.

In a disgusting display, even as Gwisai and other activists were being tortured, Mugabe pulled out all the stops for a lavish state celebration of his 87th birthday--including a celebration at a five-star hotel where he was garlanded with flowers and sung to by choirs.

As one report noted, ads taken out in the local media by Mugabe-friendly politicians "were marked by hero-worshiping phrases and language. In one advert, Mugabe was described as a legendary icon whose selfless dedication in rendering service to the nation and the peoples' of Africa, was inspiring as well as unparalleled."

Munyaradzi Gwisai and the ISO have a different opinion of the Mugabe regime. In court, Gwisai explained:

The meeting [broken up by police] was to discuss constitutionalism, democracy and good governance taking into account recent events in Egypt, for the working people in Zimbabwe...

It is not treasonous to seek to correct an anomaly in a government. The government of Zimbabwe today is not the government of the will of the people because it does not fulfill the issues of democracy, good governance and constitutionalism.

International support for the imprisoned activists is growing, with organizations including the MDC, South Africa's Center for Civil Society, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and many others calling for their release. Solidarity protests have taken place in Johnnesburg, South Africa, and Washington, D.C., as well as other cities--and activists are vowing to continue the pressure.

As Patrick Bond of the Center for Civil Society noted in a statement:

For one of the greatest movements for freedom in Southern Africa's history, the Zimbabwean ruling party, to now become one of the most consistent enemies of democracy, is confirmed by the arrests...These acts will probably require the same treatment received by the corrupt rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.

The arrest of those attending the ISO meeting only throws petrol on the fire of freedom. It will be seen by historians as one of ZANU-PF's most egregious errors of judgment. Their immediate release and compensation for the treatment they have received--through a genuine move to Zimbabwean democracy--is vital to limit the damage done.