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.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
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.

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.

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.

“The charges of treason are ridiculous,” says Shantha Bloemen, Gwisai’s wife, who has been following the court process in Harare. “But the problem is that the legal process is about keeping these people in jail for as long as possible.”

The United Nations' torture investigator has reportedly sent a letter to the Zimbabwean government expressing concern about the treatment of the 45 activists.

History of repression

The notion that merely watching a video of news clips and holding a discussion about a far-away revolt could legally be equated with treason would be laughable in many countries. But such charges are part and parcel of the way Mugabe’s ZANU-PF has held onto power since liberation from the white-controlled Rhodesian government in 1980. During the last election, held in March 2008, Mugabe arrested hundreds of opposition activists – some were killed, others merely detained and tortured – on charges of treason.

The abduction of Jestina Mukoko – a prominent human rights researcher and activist – was a fairly typical example.

On Dec. 3, 2008, Ms. Mukoko was taken from her home by six men and a woman in plain clothes. She had been compiling interviews of victims of police beatings and tortures from the March 2008 election campaign. For several days, her whereabouts were unknown, and Zimbabwean police denied having her in custody. While she was held, her interrogators beat the bottoms of her feet with rubber truncheons. When she refused to sign a confession – of having allegedly organized a military plot to overthrow Mugabe – she was forced to kneel in sharp-edged gravel thrown on the floor.

Activists praised abroad, but treated brutally at home

Fortunately for Mukoko, word got out of her disappearance and a campaign was organized for her release. Gordon Brown and Condoleezza Rice called for Mukoko’s release. Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and Graca Machel asked to visit her in detention. Still, Zimbabwe police denied Mukoko was in their custody. On Christmas Eve, she was finally granted her day in court, but wasn’t released on bail until March 2009. In September of that year, the Supreme Court threw out the charges against Mukoko.

At an awards ceremony in Washington, a year later, first lady Michelle Obama praised Mukoko for her courage, in “speaking out about the government’s human rights abuses.”

Yet if that is the kind of treatment that a prominent activist is expected to face, then it is small wonder that more citizens don’t rise up for street protests against Mugabe, says Ms. Kasambala of Human Rights Watch.

“With this court process, they want to imply that the legal system is functioning and fair, but they’ll use this time to punish the activists,” she says.

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