(Johannesburg) – The government of Zimbabwe should drop all charges against six civil society activists convicted for watching a video of Arab Spring protests in 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The six, who alleged they were tortured to confess to planning violence, were sentenced to two-year suspended sentences, a US$500 fine, and 420 hours of community service on March 21, 2012.
A Harare Magistrate’s Court on March 19 convicted the activists – Munyaradzi Gwisai, Hopewell Gumbo, Antoinette Choto, Edson Chakuma, Welcome Zimuto, and Tatenda Mombeyarara – of conspiracy to commit public violence under section 188 of the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. The convictions violate their rights to freedom of expression and association protected under international law, Human Rights Watch said.
“In the Middle East people get arrested for taking part in peaceful protests, but in Zimbabwe they get sent to prison just for watching them on video,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should immediately set these outrageous convictions aside and exonerate all six.”
The six activists were among a group of 46 people arrested on February 19, 2011, for watching a video on the Arab uprising at a seminar in Harare. The authorities initially charged the activists with treason and attempting to overthrow the government by unconstitutional means, but later dropped charges against 40 defendants. The six activists spent three weeks in detention before they were released on bail.
The case was marred by due process concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they were denied access to the defendants during their first days of detention, and the court failed to investigate the defendants’ allegations of torture, beatings, and other ill-treatment in detention.
The trial of the six on revised charges of conspiring to commit public violence and participating in a gathering with intent to promote public violence began on September 14.
In March 2012, lawyers representing the six activists filed papers in the Harare High Court accusing the government of physical and mental torture. The activists allege that police and security agents sought to extract confessions that the activists were planning an uprising against the government, and forced them to lie on their stomachs and beat them on their backs and buttocks with blunt objects, including broomsticks, planks, and metal pipes. Police also allegedly beat the activists on the soles of their feet and the palms of their hands with broomsticks and wooden planks.
“The courts should have investigated the allegations of torture against the activists instead of proceeding with a politically motivated trial,” Lefkow said. “Any security agents who are implicated in acts of torture should be investigated and prosecuted.”
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised grave concerns about the lack of human rights reforms and the recent increase in political repression in Zimbabwe, despite commitments to reform by all parties to the country’s power-sharing government.
Zimbabwe’s Global Political Agreement (GPA), which in 2009 established a power-sharing government between the former ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and the two factions of the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), contains specific measures to promote freedom of speech and the rule of law, end politically motivated violence, and apply national laws fully and impartially to hold those responsible for abuses to account.
In the past year, authorities aligned with ZANU-PF have intensified attacksagainst human rights defenders, journalists, and officials and members of the MDC, ahead of possible elections in the coming year. The Office of the Attorney General has shown a strong partisan bias toward ZANU-PF and has used criminal laws to prevent peaceful political activism, Human Rights Watch said. Prosecutors routinely invoke section 121 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, which provides additional time for investigations, to deny bail to political and civil society activists despite judicial rulings granting them bail.
“The criminal justice system should not be a tool of those in power to use for political purposes or to crack down on political activism,” Lefkow said. “These politically motivated prosecutions do not bode well for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe.”