Despite the weakness of the evidence against the six accused – who were arrested with 39 others on Feb. 19 for attending a lecture by a university professor and for watching a video of the pro-democracy revolts in Tunisia and Egypt – the charges of treason are serious and they could receive the death penalty if they are found guilty.
The six accused, including university professor Munyaradzi Gwisai, have been required to hand over their passports and will be required to check in at their local police station three times a week until their trial begins. When issuing a bail of $2,000 for each defendant, High Court Judge Samuel Kudya said the state had failed to make its case that the accused were a threat to the Zimbabwean state.
"I see no iota of evidence that any Zimbabwean ever contemplated any Tunisian or Egyptian revolution," he said in his Harare court.
The treason charges against Gwisai and the others who attended the meeting are the latest evidence that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has launched a crackdown against those he sees as opponents. With elections rumored to be planned for later this year and with his coalition partner Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai threatening to break up his power-sharing agreement with Mr. Mugabe, the Zimbabwe government’s security forces have been busy in rural districts like Masvingo and Mutare, which voted heavily for Mr. Tsvangirai’s party in the March 2008 elections.
The two-year-old power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and Tsvangirai has been shaky from the beginning, but it is credited with restoring some stability to the Zimbabwean economy, ending the country's more than 1 million percent inflation rate and aiding the return of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean economic and political refugees. A collapse of that power-sharing government – hammered out by Zimbabwe's neighbors, particularly South Africa – could reverse those modest gains.
The arrests of Gwisai and the 45 others brought a chorus of condemnation from human rights groups and from the United States government, which noted that Mugabe had “not learned the right lessons” from the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts.
After 31 years, Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), has only reluctantly allowed the barest formalities of democracy to take hold in a country with two parties. The state security apparatus, including the police and intelligence services, still remain personally answerable to Mugabe.
In addition to arresting Gwisai and the other treason-accused, Mugabe’s government has also arrested Energy Minister Elton Mangoma, a member of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, for unspecified reasons.
Insiders close to Mugabe’s party say the arrest may be because of a fuel deal that Mangoma arranged with a small South African company. The arrest brought protests from Tsvangirai, who suggested that the ruling coalition government had perhaps reached the end of its usefulness.