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 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.
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. 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.
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 Gwisai at the Harare Central police station, said detainees told him that Gwisai was one of seven people in custody who were beaten with truncheons at the police station. Muchadehama, who often represents arrested journalists and activists, said 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.”
As 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 Mugabe’s party have intensified harassment, beatings and arrests of Mugabe’s political opponents. The revolts in North Africa appear to have made 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,’” Muchadehama said.