Six political activists in Zimbabwe have been convicted of plotting Egyptian- and Tunisian-style protests against long-time President Robert Mugabe. The evidence against them: they were caught watching television.
In all, 46 people were arrested in the capital Harare last February for taking part in what the government characterized as an illegal political meeting. A former Member of Parliament, students, trade unionists and other members of civil society had gathered to watch DVDs. These discs contained news reports on the popular protests that forced the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt to step down early last year.
A spokesman for the group said they met to learn about and to discuss recent events in northern Africa. Authorities, however, said their purpose was to incite and motivate an attempt to overthrow the government, and arrested the participants en masse. Six leaders of the group were singled out and charged with treason. That was later reduced to conspiracy to commit public violence, which carries fines of up to $2,000.
The United States was pleased to learn that the sentence handed down by the court did not include jail time, but remains concerned about these and other arrests and trials targeting political and civil society activists. These arrests demonstrate an unfortunate double standard in Zimbabwe. Threats, intimidation and even outright violence are routinely ignored when they are done to protect the primacy of one political party. But anyone seen as challenging that dominance is targeted for punishment.
Every government has a responsibility to protect its population from violence, but in order to be considered a democracy, a government must also protect its citizens’ rights to peacefully assemble to seek reform in their government.