Forty-five pro-democracy activists, students and trade unionists were arrested in Harare on February 19 at a meeting to discuss the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
On February 23, the activists were charged with treason, which risks the death penalty.
It is believed that security forces loyal to President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF infiltrated the meeting at the Labour Law Centre in Harare, which was themed “Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?”
Meeting participants were watching BBC News reports of the protest movements in North Africa when police stormed the meeting.
Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former member of parliament, lecturer at University of Zimbabwe law school and a leader of the International Socialist Organisation, was among those arrested.
Gwisai’s wife, Shantha Bloemen, told Green Left Weekly the arrestees were beaten during the first two days in detention. Medical attention has been denied, including to those in urgent need of care.
The arrestees were unlawfully held at the Harare Central Police station without charge until February 23. Bloemen said they were then taken to court in leg and hand cuffs and charged with “treason and subverting a constitutionally elected government”.
The following day they returned to court to apply for bail where defence lawyers were able to collect statements from the groups for the first time. The court heard that 11 of the activists had been individually taken to the basement of the police station and beaten with broom sticks and steel rods.
The case was postponed to February 28 and the activists have been returned to custody.
Associated Press reported on February 24 that Gwisai told the court: “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.”
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party that is in a so-called power-sharing arrangement with ZANU-PF, has called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of the activists.
The MDC Information & Publicity Department said in a statement: “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.”
Alec Muchadehama, a human rights lawyer supporting the activists, told The New York Times on February 21: “This is a message [from ZANU-PF] 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’.”
Bloemen said ZANU-PF was trying to generate fear in preparation for calling an election this year, in which it aims to restore its position as the sole ruling party.
“They want an election before people forget the violence of the 2008 election,” said Bloemen.
The MDC has threatened to boycott an election if it is called without its agreement, before the rewriting of the constitution.
Drafting a new constitution is a condition of the power-sharing arrangement, but ZANU-PF has disrupted the process at every step.
Bloemen said that although people in Zimbabwe are “desperate for substantive change”, it is hard to imagine an uprising like those in North Africa while people are facing an economic crisis and are “focused on survival”.
“If anything, Munyaradzi and the other activists are seen as an intellectual threat for consistently reaching out to and uniting different strands of society, as they did with this meeting, to bring about change,” said Bloemen.
For updates and to find out how to support the activists, join the Facebook group Release human rights activists in Zimbabwe.
[You can send an email of protest to the Zimbabwe embassy in Australia at the arrest — and threat to the lives — of the 45 activists via this email: firstname.lastname@example.org .]