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Zimbabwe police detain activists for watching video of North African revolts

The incident in Zimbabwe is part of a larger crackdown south of the Sahara on pro-democracy activists, many of whom have been inspired by Tunisia and Egypt.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / March 1, 2011

Armed Zimbabwean police patrol the streets of Harare, Tuesday, March 1, in an effort to thwart a call for mass protests posted on Zimbabwean websites against the longtime authoritarian ruler, President Robert Mugabe.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

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Johannesburg, South Africa

Activists were watching a video of the Tunisia protests when Zimbabwean police stormed the room, sent 45 people to jail, and charged them with treason.

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It was the latest sign that Zimbabwe’s octogenarian president, Robert Mugabe – now in his 31st year of ruling the country – is taking no chances of having a North African-style revolt.

“This is just one incident among many,” says Tiseke Kasambala, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Johannesburg. “He’s showing that he has control of the security agencies and he is not going to tolerate dissent. We’re concerned that this is an indication that things are about to get worse in Zimbabwe, and it’s not helped by the events in the Middle East.”

The Feb. 19 arrests of the 45 activists – including professor and political leader Munyaradzi Gwisai and a number of union and student activists – is part of a larger crackdown south of the Sahara on pro-democracy activists, many of whom have taken inspiration from the courage of young men and women in Tunisia and Egypt who faced down tanks and water cannons and toppled long-ruling leaders.

In Zimbabwe, however, the machinery of repression appears to have been ready to prevent even the sparks of such a protest. Mr. Mugabe's regime has long used North Korean-trained brigades to put down regional rebellions, Central Intelligence Organization agents to infiltrate opposition parties, and so-called war veterans militia groups to push white farmers off their lands.

Mugabe tightens grip

One prominent activist, Joe Sikhala of the Movement for Democratic Change, has been arrested and is apparently being held with a broken pelvis, receiving no medical treatment. Police in the southern Matabeleland region have been put on alert to arrest members of a separatist party. Teachers around the country have announced that they will go on strike if their schools continue to be used as recruitment camps for Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party youth league. And a planned Million Citizen March, scheduled for today in Harare, seems to have fizzled even before it began, as security forces patrol the streets in larger numbers than usual.

Torture has been used against the detainees arrested for watching the video, including lashes on the back, which Professor Gwisai of the University of Zimbabwe testified in court was "indescribable, sadistic, and a tragedy for Zimbabwe." Some of the activists arrested with Gwisai are HIV patients, and have been denied their medications.

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