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Zimbabwe activists convicted on conspiracy charges for watching Arab Spring video

A CorrespondentThe Christian Science Monitor

Six Zimbabwe political activists, threatened with prison for watching a video of the Arab Spring in Egypt last year, have been found guilty, but will be fined $500 each and forced to perform 420 hours of community service.

Initially charged with treason, activist Munyaradzi Gwisai and five other socialist activists could face the death penalty, but the charges were later dropped for conspiracy to commit violence. The February 2011 arrests came at a time when North African protesters had toppled two dictators, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and had set their sites on a third, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Arresting the Zimbabwean activists was seen by many as a strong signal that an Arab Spring-style movement would not be tolerated in Zimbabwe.

President Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have ruled Zimbabwe since the end of the white-minority rule of Prime Minister Ian Smith in 1980.

Speaking outside the courthouse on Monday, Gwisai called the guilty verdict "meaningless" and "outright silly," and said that his arrest was simply another example of "political harassment by the state."

“We are not deterred, we are not intimidated,” he told reporteres. “To the ordinary people, this is not surprising. This is a staple of what is happening in Africa and across the world. So we take it as it comes, the struggle continues.”

Human Rights Watch called for all charges to be dropped against the activists.

“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,” says Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should immediately set these outrageous convictions aside and exonerate all six.”

The six opposition activists -- convicted of “conspiracy to incite public violence with a view to overthrowing the unity government" -- included the national coordinator of International Socialist Organization Munyaradzi Gwisai along with other rights activists Antoinette Choto, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Edson Chakuma, Hopewell Gumbo, and Welcome Zimuto.

The six say they were tortured in custody. Eight students who celebrated the relatively light sentencing outside the magistrates courts were arrested, while journalist Columbus Mavhunga was briefly arrested but later released for taking pictures on Wednesday amid heavy police presence.

Political, student, and human rights activists say Mugabe is spoiling for another fight in the aftermath of the conviction of the six in readiness for yet another violent election. This court case is seen as part of a larger crackdown on critics of the Mugabe government, including members of the Movement for Democratic Change led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, which shares power uneasily with Mugabe's ZANU-PF after the disputed 2008 elections. Tensions between Mugabe's party and Mr. Tsvangirai's MDC party have been growing in the past year, as Mugabe announced his intention to hold elections this year, even without a new constitution in place or the funds to run elections.

South African and other members of the Southern African Development Community have advised Zimbabwe to hold elections in 2013, and Finance Minister Tendai Biti of the MDC announced last week that there was no money set aside for elections this year. But ZANU-PF leaders have told reporters that “the money will be found from the right resources once the time arrives.”

Speaking to the Zimbabwean Standard newspaper, ZANU-PF secretary for administration Didymus Mutasa said: “Biti must stop making noise and quietly look for money to hold elections. It’s not his money and whether he likes it or not, elections will be held this year.”

International observers, including those from the African Union, rejected election results in June 2008. Tsvangirai and other candidates bowed out of runoff elections, after pro-Mugabe gangs targeted and killed nearly 200 MDC opposition party activists. Undaunted, Mugabe ran unopposed, and the country effectively ran without a government until a Global Political Agreement was signed almost a year later, creating the current power-sharing agreement. Now, with a renewed crackdown on dissent and with ZANU-PF pushing for elections once more, student leaders, unionists, and political players in Zimbabwe think the country is once again sliding to its dark past.

Luke Tamborinyoka, Prime Minister Tsvangirai's spokesperson, issued this statement after Gwisai's conviction on Monday. “This not only besmirches the government’s image, but serves to confirm that Zimbabwe has not moved an inch in its respect for human rights."

Student leader Clever Bere says the arrests and convictions were “barbaric.”

"People should have a right to freely associate and engage on any issue," says Mr. Bere. "It shows us that ZANU-PF has not and will not reform. Indeed the unity government has failed in as far as opening up the democratic space.”

While Mugabe's crackdown comes as no surprise, after more than 30 years of strongman rule, some opposition activists blame opposition leaders for an inability or unwillingness to take on Mugabe. National Constitutional Assembly spokesman Blessing Vava blamed Tsvangirai, calling him a “powerless leader.”

“ZANU-PF is trying to frustrate and humiliate any dissenting voices," says Mr. Vava. "However the whole case and all the arrests targeted at MDC activists have exposed Tsvangirai as a powerless leader in the inclusive government. People are being arrested, molested, and harassed under his nose.”

The Monitor's correspondent in Harare cannot be named for security reasons.