Six Zimbabwean socialist activists were convicted on March 19 for “conspiracy to commit public violence”. Their “crime” was to watch a video in February last year about the anti-dictatorship uprising in Egypt.
But the activists won a partial victory two days later when they were given suspended jail sentences of two years. The six were also ordered to each do 420 hours of community service and pay a fine of US$500 (A$478).
The six had faced up to 10 years’ in jail, a sentence demanded by the state prosecutor, Edmore Nyazamba.
The decision not to jail the six is a victory for freedom of speech and assembly ― won with the help of a campaign in solidarity with the activists around the world. However, the suspended sentence comes with the condition that no “similar offence” is committed in the next five years.
This is a clear attempt to gag the activists, who will appeal against it. One of the six, general coordinator of the International Socialist Organisation-Zimbabwe Munyaradzi Gwisai, told supporters after the sentencing: “It won't intimidate us. It will not deter us. I have no regrets.”
The six were part of a group of 45 people arrested in Harare after an ISO-organised meeting showed a video of the mass protests against dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia. Those arrested were held in jail, tortured and prevented from receiving prescription drugs and medical attention.
David Mpatsi, one of those arrested, died after this treatment by the police.
As a result of international protests, all but six of the 45 were eventually released. The “Zimbabwe Six” are 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 Labour Centre) and Edson Chakuma (of the United Food and Allied Workers Union).
They were accused by the state of fomenting an uprising against the regime of President Robert Mugabe, and charged with treason and “subverting a constitutionally elected government”.
These charges, which carry a possible death sentence, were part of a crackdown on opposition activists in the run-up to possible elections later this year.
In response to protests in Zimbabwe and around the world, the treason charges were dropped.
That the activists were even found guilty of the lesser charge of “conspiracy to commit public violence” was a surprise to many. The prosecution’s case had been collapsing due to lack of evidence and credibility.
The state’s main witness, a spy who was at the film screening, was exposed by the defence as being Rodwell Chitiyo from Zimbabwe’s secret police.
In calling for the harshest possible sentencing of the activists, the state prosecutor went so far as to argue that in Biblical times, the activists would have been stoned.
The prosecutor said: “Those who revolted against authority were swallowed up when the ground opened up. Their families, including their cats and dogs, were not spared.”
The day after the convictions, solidarity protests demanding the activists be released and the convictions overturned took place in Melbourne, Toronto, London, New York, Johannesburg and Vienna.
Statements condemning the convictions were issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The international solidarity and the courageous support for the activists shown by ordinary people in Zimbabwe forced Zimbabwe’s “opposition” party, the Movement for Democratic Change, to also speak out ― at the very last minute ― against the persecution of the activists.
On the day of sentencing, the court gallery in Harare was packed with supporters. Hundreds more, including trade unionists, students and other community members, defied intimidation, by rows of riot police assembled at the court gates, to protest outside.
The campaign now is to have the convictions overturned so that these activists, and all people in Zimbabwe, can exercise their fundamental human right to speak out and organise against state repression and injustice.