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Zimbabwe activists fined for watching Arab Spring video

March 21, 2012 |  2:21 pm

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Munyaradzi Gwisai was sentenced Wednesday  to pay $500 and serve 420 hours of community service by  a Zimbabwe court. So were five other Zimbabwean activists.

What landed them in court? Watching a video of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Dozens of people were arrested in February 2011 after a video on the protests was shown at a Harare seminar. The only person who was able to escape said the seminar participants were linking the struggles in Egypt and Tunisia to the situation in Zimbabwe, The Times reported last year.

"People were throwing out their perspectives and their views on how they can free themselves from this regime,” the man said then on condition of anonymity, fearing arrest.

The government dropped charges of treason and trying to overthrow the government against most defendants, but prosecuted the activists for conspiring to commit public violence.

"Watching the video is not a crime;  however, the manner at which they watched it was meant to arouse feelings of hostility to those present in the meeting. Watching it in those circumstances was nasty and pathetic," Judge Kudakwashe Jarabini was quoted in the Herald, a Zimbabwean paper.

“One can safely conclude that the meeting was not innocent and academic, but was meant to urge people to revolt against the government of Zimbabwe," Jarabini said Monday, when the activists were found guilty.

The judge reportedly called the sentences “compassionate.”

Zimbabwean activists had feared even harsher sentences of up to a decade in jail. The lighter sentence was still bemoaned by activists, who said the case was a farce. The defendants alleged that  they had been  tortured into confessing.

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

Lefkow said the arrests were part of a worrisome crackdown on activists by authorities tied to the former ruling party, using criminal laws to quash peaceful activism.

The former ruling party linked to President Robert Mugabe is sharing power with its old opponents, but Mugabe may call elections to end the coalition government. The opposition is against the idea.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, a longtime opposition leader, said Tuesday in a statement that he was “disturbed that the government he serves could criminalize people watching videos as plotting to unseat the government."

It “serves  to confirm that Zimbabwe has not moved an inch in its respect for human rights,” Tsvangirai said.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Supporters of six Zimbabwean activists found guilty of conspiring to commit public violence in Harare, Zimbabwe,  demonstrate Tuesday outside the Zimbabwean consulate in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: Jerome Delay / Associated Press

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