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International uproar over conviction of Zimbabwean activists

22 March, 2012Six Zimbabwean activists were found guilty of charges of inciting public violence on March 19, causing uproar among labour and civil society organizations. Regional and international calls for the charges to be dropped swiftly shifted focus to put pressure on key government officials through a sms campaign to ensure that the lightest possible sentence would be handed down.

ZIMBABWE: The six Munyaradzi Gwisai, Tafadzwa Choto, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Edson Chakuma, Hopewell Gumbo and Welcome Zimuto, received a fine and 420 hours of community service on March 21, the best possible outcome, given the circumstances.

The activists, four of whom work as labour activists, were arrested a year ago, together with 39 other people, at the Zimbabwe Labour Centre for discussing the Arab Spring and viewing video footage on the popular uprising in Egypt. What was merely an academic political debate was presented as plotting to overthrow the government.

The six had initially been charged with treason, but during the course of the court process, the charges were reduced and the other 39 people cleared. In his ruling Judge Kudya said the state prosecutors had failed to prove that the activists were a threat to Zimbabwe's safety and added "I see no iota of evidence that any Zimbabwean ever contemplated any Tunisian- or Egyptian-[style] revolution."

The six activists remained in prison, before bail was granted a month after their arrest. These activists were subjected to physical and mental torture and have brought charges against government officials for their experiences at the hands of state security agents. They were also prevented from access to prescription medication and treatment. Conditions were particularly hard for the only woman amongst the six, Tafadzwa Choto, who suffers from ill health and requires constant medical attention after three brain surgeries. 

The General Secretaries of IMF, ICEM and ITGLWF sent a joint letter to the Zimbabwean government calling the arrest, torture and prosecution of these six activists unconstitutional in their country and in violation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The letter states; "We are disturbed that these six activists have been treated as criminals for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and we call on your government to unconditionally pardon these six activists. We also urge your government to release all political prisoners and drop charges against others that are awaiting trial. We ask that your government take all necessary measures to guarantee that the rights and freedoms of all Zimbabweans are respected in accordance with international human rights standards."

The conviction criminalizes activism and gives the Zimbabwe government a green light to persecute and silence activists. It also serves to further repress and intimidate ordinary people, creating fear and deactivating political citizen engagement ahead of national elections scheduled for 2013, which the Zimbabwe government wishes to bring forward to this year.