Gwisai, Antoneta Choto, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Edson Chakuma, Hopewell Gumbo and Welcome Zimuto were convicted of plotting to incite public violence by watching video footage of Egypt’s mass uprisings against deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and events in Tunisia at the height of the Arab Spring last year.
They were fined US$500 each to be paid on or before March 26 and ordered to perform 420 hours of community service. If they fail to pay they risk spending 10 months in jail — for merely watching video footage of events that were public and beamed live on international television networks around the clock all over the world!
Police claimed the agenda of the meeting at which Gwisai and others were arrested was “Egypt and Tunisia — What lessons can be learnt by the working class in Zimbabwe and Africa”? They alleged the meeting was calculated to incite people to “subvert a constitutionally-elected government”.
Despite being initially accused of treason, Gwisai and others were later charged with conspiring to incite public violence.
As the International Commission for Jurists said, it is appalling that Gwisai and his colleagues were tortured during their 27 days in prison before being granted bail under stringent conditions. That sort of treatment not only violated the constitution regarding the right to the presumption of innocence and fair trial, liberty and freedom from torture, it also violated international human rights instruments.
Indeed, the arrest and prosecution of citizens for freely and peacefully gathering to share civic information violated their rights to the freedom of assembly, association and expression, as well as thought and conscience, and to hold opinions, either alone or in community with others in public or private.
In a country purporting to be democratic, laws ought to be used to protect the citizens and not to persecute them for raising human rights-related issues which the state is obliged to uphold. All persons ought to be equal before the law and all offenders should be legally accountable.
Amnesty International was spot on when it said the conviction of these activists shows there is still an urgent need to ensure respect for human rights in Zimbabwe where systematic repression and impunity remain rampant.
Unquestionably, this case and how it unfolded provides further and clear evidence that Zimbabwe is a police state. Not that this was ever in doubt, but this case ranks as one of the most outrageous and appalling examples of Stalinist repression.
It would take a large leap of faith to believe Gwisai and his colleagues wanted or were capable of overthrowing government. Unless this was a case of someone with a serious paranoid personality disorder or malicious intent, no serious person could believe the contrived shaggy dog story obviously concocted by sloppy and incompetent security agents.
But then, simple enough, that’s what happens in a police state in which the government exercises rigid repressive controls over social, economic and political spheres.
This case — among a litany of others — is emblematic of what Zimbabwe has now become. Since 1980, this country has been a cauldron of gross human rights violations. All sorts of abuses have been visited upon law-abiding and God-fearing citizens of this country. Egregious human rights violations on a massive scale have been committed during the past three decades of President Robert Mugabe’s disastrous reign.
The sentencing of Gwisai and others on the day when our neighbour South Africa was celebrating Human Rights Day in commemoration of the Sharpeville massacres in 1960, with President Jacob Zuma leading calls for the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, dramatically drew the contrast between the two countries.
What the Gwisai case did was to send a chilling political message through the pliant courts that Zimbabweans are not allowed to exercise their civil and political rights freely; freedoms of association, assembly and expression are endangered and people can’t express themselves without risking a vicious backslash and severe consequences. That’s how a fascist police state works.