Amnesty International has expressed shock that at least 45 Zimbabwean activists have been charged with treason and could face the death penalty following their arrest at a lecture on the protests in North Africa.
Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former opposition parliamentarian, and 44 social justice, trade union and human rights activists were arrested by police on Saturday 26 February as they were attending a lecture entitled “Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia. What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa”.
Amnesty is also alarmed by reports that at least seven of the activists, including Munyaradzi Gwisai, were beaten by security agents while in custody and called on the government to investigate the allegations.
Amnesty International's Africa Deputy Director Michelle Kagari said: “This is a clear over-reaction by the state to an event in which the participants were exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression which the government of Zimbabwe must guarantee under national and international law.
“The safety of detainees remains a serious concern as the Law and Order Section at Harare Central Police station has become notorious for the torture and ill-treatment of activists in their custody.
“These persistent abuses demonstrate the need for urgent reform of Zimbabwe’s security sector to bring to an end a culture of impunity for human rights violations and partisan enforcement of the law.”
Defence lawyers told Amnesty they had been denied the opportunity to consult their clients and were only informed of the charges facing the activists minutes before they were brought before the court. The proceedings were adjourned following protests from the lawyers and are expected to resume on Monday (28 February).
Amnesty is also concerned about reports that prison officers at the Magistrates court in Harare prevented the defence lawyers from taking instructions from their clients before they were transferred to Harare Remand Prison and Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.
Michelle Kagari added:“This restriction of the right of the activists to access their lawyer is unnecessary and throws serious doubts on the likelihood the detainees will receive a fair trial.
“The police continue to selectively apply the law in favour of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.”
Last month ZANU-PF supporters carried out attacks against opposition supporters in Harare’s suburb of Mbare, but to date, the police have not arrested anyone.