HARARE, Zimbabwe (WOMENSENEWS)–People here talk about the political events in North Africa in supermarkets, pubs, schools, markets, hospitals, on the soccer fields and in our homes.
But a trial of 45 people that started Feb. 19 and ended in treason charges against six on Monday, signals the danger of doing so in any organized fashion in a country with what the Committee to Protect Journalists describes as some of the world’s most restrictive media laws.
President Robert Mugabe’s security forces rounded up the group of 45–which included 11 women–while they were gathered in an office building for a meeting organized by the International Socialist Organization to meet and watch recordings of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
On Monday, 39 of the accused were released and allowed to return home.
Six remaining–including one woman–now await a trial date at the High Court on treason charges, which carry the death sentence in Zimbabwe.
The local magistrate said the group could apply for bail.
The most prominent member of the group is Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former member of Parliament for the Movement for Democratic Change.
The group is accused of plotting a government overthrow, something human rights workers have said could not be ascribed to the circumstances of their arrest.
“It was nothing different to what many other Zimbabweans watched also,” Roselyn Hanzi, head of the Human Rights Defender Project for the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, was quoted in an article on the Africa section of the Web site of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley has expressed U.S. concern about the situation, according to press reports.
Mugabe has held power since 1980 and has faced charges of vote-rigging and security restrictions to maintain his hold.
The country’s two leading women’s right organizations–the Women’s Coalition and Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association–have declined to comment on the case.
Some onlookers feared for the women’s safety while they were in police custody.
Women of Zimbabwe Arise, a rights group based in the second largest city of Bulawayo, has documented cases of police abuse of women in the past. In 2007, the group published a report finding that of 1,983 members who had been held by the police after participating in various types of streets protests 42 percent reported sexual assault and torture, 33 percent reported physical torture, 64 percent reported humiliating and degrading treatment and 78 percent reported political threats. Violations were perpetrated by police during protests and in custody.
Female members of the National Constitutional Assembly have reported similar violations.
One of the most notorious cases involves Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, based in Harare.
Mukoko was abducted from her home on Dec. 3, 2008, and held in police custody for several weeks, where she was brutally beaten, tortured, forced to confess to an alleged plot to mount a terrorist incursion from neighboring Botswana, and subsequently imprisoned before being brought to court, where she was eventually granted bail in February 2009.
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Fazila Mohammed has been a correspondent for Voice of America’s Zimbabwe Service Studio 7 since 2003.