Human rights group have slammed the treatment of a group of 45 activists, who are facing treason charges for watching TV footage of Egypt's revolution, and have called for their immediate release.
The activists, including the leader of the Zimbabwe chapter of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), Munyaradzi Gwisai, were arrested on Saturday during a meeting in Harare.
The meeting, which was held to discuss recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, was raided by police after a suspected tip-off. The police confiscated a video projector, two DVDs and a laptop computer, and arrested 46 people, including a young child who was with its mother.
The child was eventually released into its father's care on Saturday, but the remaining 45 activists have remained behind bars. On Wednesday, the State finally decided to lay charges of treason against the group, ten minutes before they appeared in court.
The activists were not given time to discuss the charges with their attorneys and were denied access to the legal team after the hearing. They were instead led out of the court like criminals, shackled in leg irons and handcuffs, and some have even been moved to the notorious Chikurubi maximum security prison.
At least seven members of the group, including Gwisai, have also been viciously beaten while in police care. Human rights attorney, Alec Muchadehama, told SW Radio Africa on Thursday that the group has been denied proper medical treatment, an issue that has been raised in court. He explained that the case against the activists has been remanded until next week.
The Former Zimbabwe Student Leaders Network on Thursday condemned the arrest of Gwisai and the 44 other activists, and demanded their "immediate and unconditional release." The group said in statement that "the totally unacceptable torture and harassment of activists indicates clearly the partisanship and lack of professionalism of the police. Despite over two years of a transitional coalition government, serious human rights abuses continue to take place in Zimbabwe."
"We call upon Zimbabweans in their various groupings in civil society, churches, trade unions and pro-democracy political parties to actively show solidarity with the detained activists through protest marches demanding the freedom of these 45 activists and a restoration of respect for human rights and democracy to Zimbabwe," the group said.
In recent weeks ZANU PF members and the party loyal security services have stepped up their intimidation of civil society activists and MDC supporters. According to international rights group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the attacks and intimidation underscore the need for human rights improvements "before the national elections proposed for this year."
HRW researcher Tiseke Kasambala told SW Radio Africa that these most recent arrests "are symptomatic of ZANU PF's authoritarian nature." She called the charges "ridiculous," and "clearly politically motivated," and called for the activists to be released immediately.
"People have the right to watch what they like on television, they have the right to peacefully assemble, they have the right to peacefully express themselves. But in Zimbabwe this is not the case," Kasambala said.
She also expressed concern about the spate of arrests of activists and MDC officials in recent weeks, including the arrest and ongoing detention of MDC MP Douglas Mwonzora. He was arrested in Harare last week on allegations that he instigated violence against ZANU PF supporters in his Nyanga constituency. He denies the charges and has instead accused his ZANU PF opponent Hurbert Nyanhongo of sending militia to storm a rally he organised. 24 other Nyanga residents have also been arrested and charged with attacking ZANU PF members.
Police have also arrested, intimidated, and harassed members of local human rights organisations. On February 8, police arrested two employees of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum in Harare, as they tried to conduct a survey on transitional justice. They were taken to Machipisa police station and later released without charge.
The next day police summoned the director of the group, Abel Chikomo, and questioned him for six hours at Machipisa and Harare Central Police stations about the organisation's activities, including its involvement in the research project on transitional justice. Police also raided and searched the group's offices.
That same day, six unidentified men believed to be from the CIO, raided the offices of the Youth Forum in Harare. The Youth Forum has a campaign encouraging youth to register to vote during elections. The men demanded to know why the Youth Forum was encouraging youths to register to vote and later left the offices.
Kasambala said this is "an indication of an escalation of political tensions that are a result of Robert Mugabe's declaration of an election this year." She called on regional leaders to step in and put pressure on Mugabe to stop the political violence, and insisted that another election cannot be held now.
"The situation shows that elections cannot take place, the conditions are not there. SADC cannot afford to have a repeat of the chaos and violence we saw in the 2008 election so they must be much, much firmer with Mugabe and ZANU PF," Kasambala said.
The 45 activists charged with treason are Munyaradzi Gwisai, Antonater Choto, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Michael Sozinyu, Eddson Chakuma, Hopewell Gumbo, Welcome Zimuto, Phillip Magaya, Prolific Mataruse, Godknows Biya, David Mupatse, Douglas Muzanenhamo, Ganizani Nunu, Reki Jimu, Josphat Chinembiri, Strutton Muhambi, Trevor Chamba, Clarence Mugari, Munyaradzi Maregedze, Willie Hlatswayo, Ian Muteto, Tinashe Muzambi, Tinashe Mutazu, Pride Mukono, Lenard Kamwendo, Tinashe Chisaira, Trust Munyama, Peter Garanewako, Elizabeth Makume, Megline Malunga, Daison Bango, Malvern Hobwana, Tashinga Mudzengi, Ednar Chabalika, Thokozile Mathe, Francisca Thompson, Masline Zvomuya, Nhamo Kute, Annie Chipeta, Tabeth Chideya, Charles Mubwandarikwa, Thomas Chibaya, Fatima Manhando, Blessing Muguzayaya and Robert Muhlaba.