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Arrests in Zimbabwe for Seeing Videos

February 22, 2011



JOHANNESBURG — Dozens of students, trade unionists and political activists who gathered to watch Al Jazeera and BBC news reports on the uprisings that brought down autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt have been arrested on suspicion of plotting to oust President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

James Sabau, a spokesman for the police force, which is part of the security services controlled by Mr. Mugabe’s party, was quoted in Monday’s state-controlled newspaper as saying that the 46 people in custody were accused of participating in an illegal political meeting where they watched videos “as a way of motivating them to subvert a constitutionally elected government.”

The evidence seized by the police included a video projector, two DVD discs and a laptop.

Lawyers for the men and women in custody said they had not yet been formally charged but had been advised that they might be accused of “attempting to overthrow the government by unconstitutional means,” a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Mr. Mugabe, who turned 87 on Monday, and his party ruled Zimbabwe single-handedly from 1980 until 2009, when regional leaders pressured him into forming a power-sharing government with his longtime political rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, after a discredited 2008 election. Mr. Tsvangirai withdrew from a June runoff that year to protest state-sponsored beatings of thousands of his supporters. An estimated 350 people died in the violence.

“The illegal meeting’s agenda, Inspector Sabau said, was ‘Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?’ ” the state-controlled Herald reported.

Inspector Sabau found the topic incriminating, but many Zimbabweans have been asking themselves that very question as democratic revolutions have swept Arab nations. Like former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Mr. Mugabe is an octogenarian autocrat in power for three decades. And also like Mr. Mubarak, he has used the state security services to harass, jail and torture his opponents.

But there are differences as well. The United Nations recently found Zimbabweans to be among the world’s poorest people, often making mere survival an all-consuming task. They also have less access to the Internet than Egyptians, depriving them of one of the tools that helped organize the mass protests in Cairo.

And while the army in Egypt did not side with Mr. Mubarak when his people rose up against him, most analysts assume that the leadership of Zimbabwe’s military would try to crush any such movement — though such an effort would also severely test the loyalty of impoverished soldiers to their military commanders.

Nonetheless, some of Mr. Mugabe’s most influential opponents have also criticized Mr. Tsvangirai’s leadership, arguing that the people power in north Africa offers an example for Zimbabweans to resist Mr. Mugabe’s rule.

“Indeed, the single most important lesson from Tunisia and Egypt is that we as Zimbabweans are our own liberators,” Trevor Ncube, owner of three independent newspapers in Zimbabwe and The Mail & Guardian in South Africa, wrote this week in The Mail & Guardian. Mr. Ncube added later, “The world will only help us when we stand up and fight for our freedom and reclaim our country from Mugabe and the arrogant clique around him.”

Munyaradzi Gwisai, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe’s law school, was an organizer of the gathering, which took place on Saturday and allowed activists who had no Internet access or cable television to see images from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Alec Muchadehama, a human rights lawyer who met Mr. Gwisai at the Harare Central police station, said detainees told him that Mr. Gwisai was one of seven people in custody who were beaten with truncheons at the police station. Mr. Muchadehama, who often represents arrested journalists and activists, said Mr. Gwisai and others at the meeting were not plotting the government’s overthrow, but were engaged in “an academic debate about what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt.”

A socialist and iconoclast whose wife said he was expelled from Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change in 2002 for supporting an aggressive land reform program at a time when Mr. Mugabe’s party was encouraging violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms, Mr. Gwisai, like many of his countrymen, has been watching the unrest in Arab nations.

His wife, Shantha Bloemen, who works for the United Nations in Johannesburg, said: “Obviously, all the happenings in Egypt and Tunisia have been taking center stage. The meeting was an opportunity to discuss what’s happened, especially for people who don’t have access to the Internet or cable TV, both to express solidarity and to discuss the implications for Zimbabwe.”

As Mr. Mugabe’s party pushes for elections this year in a drive to reclaim sole power, human rights groups have warned that the police and youth militia aligned with Mr. Mugabe’s party have intensified harassment, beatings and arrests of Mr. Mugabe’s political opponents. The revolts in North Africa appear to have made Mr. Mugabe’s inner circle nervous — and the arrests were a sharp warning to those emboldened by them, they said.

“This is a message 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,’ ” Mr. Muchadehama said. “That’s the message — ‘Don’t attempt this, it can’t be done here.’ ”

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