Mugabe’s iron fist aimed at activists

March 19, 2012

Nicole Colson reports on the trial of six Zimbabwean activists, where a verdict is expected--and the campaign of international support their arrest has provoked.

MORE THAN a year after they first were arrested, six Zimbabwean activists are facing a verdict this week on charges that they attempted to foment public disorder. Their "crime"? Showing a video of the protests against dictatorship in Egypt and Tunisia.

On February 19 of last year, 45 activists, students and unionists were arrested in Harare during a meeting to discuss events in Egypt and Tunisia, and to commemorate the life of HIV activist Navigator Mungoni, who had recently died.

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.

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 operating under cover among the attendees of the meeting.

Munyaradzi Gwisai and other activists are escorted out of court in Harare
Munyaradzi Gwisai and other activists are escorted out of court in Harare

Initially, the activists faced charges of treason and "subverting a constitutionally elected government"--which are punishable by a possible death sentence. But all the activists did was stand in opposition to the brutally regime of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. According to the state, they were attempting to foment an uprising.

Their arrest came as Mugabe and his Zanu-PF ruling party, in the run-up to this year's elections and in the wake of the mass rebellions against tyranny across the Arab world, escalated attacks on political rivals. The government carried out a campaign of intimidation and violence against all rivals, including those in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change--whose members also faced mass arrests in early 2011.

During the early days of their arrest, Gwisai and the other activists were tortured by their captors. Lawyers for the activists stated that some had been beaten on their bodies and the soles of their feet with broomsticks and metal rods.

Most of those initially arrested were released after two weeks in custody, and others were eventually granted bail--a result of widespread outrage and an activist campaign that drew attention to the case and included pickets outside the Zimbabwean embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Zimbabwean mission in New York City; protests of trade unionists and other activists in South Africa, Britain, Australia and Sweden; and statements of support from Egyptian revolutionaries, South African trade unionists and others around the globe.

What you can do

To learn more about the six prisoners and the struggle for their release, see the Free Them Now! website, the Solidarity with Zimbabwean Political Prisoners website, and the Facebook group (open to non-Facebook users) Calling for the Release of Zimbabwean Activists.

In the event that the six are found guilty, activists in neighboring South Africa will be staging a picket at noon at the Zimbabwe embassy on Tuesday, March 20, at 13 Boeing Street West, Bedfordview (on the opposite side of the road to East Gate shopping mall). In New York City, on the same day, a protest will be held at noon outside the Zimbabwean Embassy, at 128 E. 56 St.

Activists elsewhere are also encouraged to hold solidarity pickets and protests at Zimbabwean embassies and consulates, and speakouts on campuses on March 20 in the event of a conviction.

Text messages of protest to: Police Spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena + 263 712 801 172; Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri + 263 712 808 290; Police Minister Kembo Mohadi +263 712 605 424; Security Minister Didymus Mutasa +263 0712 200 532

Send an urgent e-mail to Zimbabwean officials calling for the charges to be dropped. Include these e-mail addresses in the "To" line: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].

Donate to the "Free the Zimbabwe 45" fund to contribute to the legal defense of the activists, as well as support for their families.

But the Mugabe regime insisted on pushing forward with charges against six activists it deemed the "ringleaders": Gwisai, Tafadzwa Antonater Choto, Hopewell Gumbo (former president of the Zimbabwe National Students Union), Welcome Zimuto (of the Zimbabwe National Students Union), Tatenda Mombeyara (of the Zimbabwe Labor Center) and Edson Chakuma (of the United Food and Allied Workers Union).

ON MARCH 19, exactly one year after their release on bail, these six activists will go to court to hear the magistrate hand down a verdict in their cases. If found guilty, they face jail terms of 6 to 10 years--a potential death sentence given the inhumane conditions inside Zimbabwe's prison system and the brutality they will likely face behind bars.

As the South African Municipal Workers Union wrote in a statement:

The evidence put before the court by the State is flimsy, biased and shrouded in innuendo and paranoia. If the six are convicted it will mean that the security apparatus in Zimbabwe will have unlimited powers to send perfectly innocent people to prison for watching a film, or worse, for even daring to discuss events unfolding in another country!...

As far as the state is concerned, this group of peaceful socialist activists were about to launch a revolution and take power for themselves! In other words, if you watch a film about the events in Egypt, you must be preparing to organize a violent uprising in Harare! On this reasoning, thousands of those who tuned into Al Jazeera during the North African turmoil are guilty, too!...

Logic and reason are not being applied in this court by the state. Instead, it is deploying the worst forms of guilt by association and conspiracy-mongering to stifle any opposition to rule by Zanu-PF.

The state is desperate to close down any avenue for discussion in the build-up to the upcoming elections that might allow important questions to be raised about the illegal human rights abuses of Zanu-PF, the state of corruption and patronage at work in the country and the continuing poverty experienced by the masses. This is the real agenda. Speak out, and you can expect to be punished and sent to prison.

This union urges all of those who stand for democratic and human rights, including members of the tripartite alliance and all of civil society across the region to be ready to defend the six socialists...We must all be ready to send a message to the Zimbabwean government that intolerance of this type is not acceptable and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Like last year, international solidarity will be key. Activists around the globe must stand against this injustice and in defense of these Zimbabwean activists.

Further Reading

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