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Zimbabwe: International solidarity still urgent for six jailed activists; 39 released due to protests

STOP PRESS March 11, 2011: Munyaradzi Gwisai, Tafadzwa Antonater Choto, Hopewell Gumbo, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Edson Chakuma and Welcome Zimuto had their application for refusal of remand thrown out and remanded to March 21 to face trial for treason which carries a death sentence in Zimbabwe. For the latest news, visit the new solidarity web site at http://www.freethemnow.com/.

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By Ashley Fataar 

March 10, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- An international solidarity campaign has won a partial victory for the 45 solidarity and socialist activists arrested in Zimbabwe for watching a video on the recent uprisings in Egypt. Thirty-nine have had their charges dropped by the Harare Magistrates Court for lack of evidence and because the detentions resulted from what the court called “dragnet” arrests. However six activists remain in jail in appalling conditions. It remains urgent for supporters of human rights and democracy to continue to send messages to the Zimbabwe government and its embassies demanding their release and the dropping of all charges. For contact details of where to direct protest messages, click HERE.

Those still in jail are Antonater Choto, Eddison Chakuma, Welcome Zimuto, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Hopewell Gumbo and Munyaradzi Gwisai (pictured above). They are being held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and are only allowed out to see visitors twice a day for 30 minutes at a time. This is also when visitors give them food, as under the neoliberal regime, funding for prisoners’ meals has been reduced to near zero. Prisoners are fortunate to be fed once a day with a corn (maize) porridge. Beans or cabbage may be added.

The sole woman detainee, Antonater Choto, is also being subjected to hard labour. She has had an operation due to a brain cyst. The tube needs to be checked to ensure that pressure is being alleviated, but the prison authorities have insisted that any medical attention must be carried out in the jail. Because of the unhygienic conditions, they have all contracted lice infestations.

The activists’ lawyers have managed to apply for bail, and the court will hear the bail application on March 11.

International protests, solidarity messages and protest messages have kept attention on the case. This is why 39 were released.

The campaign for the remaining six detainees will continue until they have been released and had the spurious charges of treason cleared.

[Ashley Fataar is a member of the Keep Left socialist organisation in South Africa.]

 

Who the politcial prisoners are

Tafadzwa Choto

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Tafadzwa is a veteran of the struggle for equality and justice in Zimbabwe. She has been a key player in crucial democratic and social justice processes including constitutional reform, workers rights, women's rights and the right to health campaign. The only woman who was not released with others deserves special mention. Tafadzwa, a heroine of struggles for democracy, human rights and justice in Zimbabwe is a survivor of a very complicated medical operation that she is still recovering from and lives with asthma. She is among those who were tortured when the group was initially arrested. When she informed the police of her medical history, they bluntly told her that  "it does not matter -- today we will beat you until your period comes". She is in an overcrowded cell with 26 other women at Chikurubi Maximum prison. Because of the horrible hygiene conditions she has had constant asthma attacks.We demand her immediate release so that she can be in hospital and get the medical care she urgently needs.

Munyaradzi Gwisai

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The general coodinator of International Socialist Organization of Zimbabwe, Munyaradzi is a former Movement for Democratic Change member of parliament for Highfield and a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe. Gwisai has been a leading voice for workers' rights and social justice in Zimbabwe since the late eighties when he led student protests against corruption and injustice. He is a dedicated defender of workers and the oppressed poor.

Hopewell Gumbo

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A former president of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, Msavaya -- as he is affectionately known by many in the struggle for social justice and democracy in Zimbabwe -- is a consistent fighter and great inspiration to generations of activists. 

Welcome Zimuto

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Welcome Zimuto is a key organiser and campaigner for the right to education and an advocate for democracy and human rights in the country. He is with the Zimbabwe National Students Union.

Tatenda Mombeyara

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Tatenda is an organiser with the Zimbabwe Labor Center.

Edson Chakuma

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From seminar to jail cell

By Scott McLemee

March 9, 2011 – Inside Higher Ed -- Right now, six people are being held in solitary confinement in Zimbabwe -- released from their cells each day, according to a report from family members, for just 30 minutes in the morning and another 30 minutes in the late afternoon. They have not even gone on trial yet. When they do, the death sentence is a real possibility. Their offence is that they organised a meeting where video footage from the recent mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt was screened and the events there were discussed.

I do not know this for certain, but it seems likely that they also may have incited people to commit acts of reading. One of the masterminds behind the gathering, after all, was  Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former member of parliament and leader of the International Socialist Organization of Zimbabwe. He also teaches labour law at the University of Zimbabwe. You know how it is with both professors and radicals. They are always trying to get you to read something.

Now, all this unauthorised thinking about the outside world is clearly a matter of grave concern to the regime of Robert Mugabe, who has been running Zimbabwe for as long as it’s been called “Zimbabwe”. That comes to 31 years now -- just a little longer than Hosni Mubarak was in power in Egypt. On February 19, 2011, as the meeting was taking place at the Labour Law Centre in the capital city of Harare, security forces raided it and arrested dozens of people, including students and trade union members. They were detained for a week at a police station, without legal counsel, and a number of them later described being “beaten with broomsticks, metal rods and blunt objects on their bodies and the soles of their feet”, according to an article in the New York Times.

On March 7, 39 of the prisoners were finally released. The six who remain in custody are being charged with treason; if found guilty, they could be executed. Meanwhile, other opposition groups are being harassed, with at least one MP being arrested. Evidently this is the government’s way of preparing for the national election to be held later this year. President Mugabe is, as the old saying goes, a firm advocate of the two-party system: there should be one party in power, and the other in jail.

On March 1, with my column for the week not quite done, I hurried over to the Embassy of Zimbabwe in Washington, DC, which is just a few blocks from Inside Higher Ed's world headquarters. There was what any activist must feel obliged to call "a small but spirited demonstration" on the sidewalk in front of the place. We gave leaflets to passers-by, and people in cars honked their horns in what one hoped was solidarity. At one point I even directed a few choice words, by bullhorn, to any of the diplomatic staff who might have been inside. (This was not cathartic. It would have been better to say them in person, but the front gate was locked.) And then I rushed back home, to my desk and my deadline, trying to put out of mind the image of being whipped on the soles of the feet with a metal rod.

That very same day (March 1) turned out to be the occasion of the Million Citizen March in Zimbabwe, which was organised on Facebook. The press abroad gave it almost no coverage. In a way, this was understandable, since nobody showed up for the Million Citizen March. One of the few reporters who did mention it found widespread suspicion that the whole thing was “a ploy by Zimbabwe’s intelligence service to lure activists onto the streets so they can be arrested”.

The benign neglect by the media of this not-quite-historical event is worth some reflection, though. As I wrote in this column a month ago, there has lately been a strong presumption that social networking is, as such, democratogenic. It is true that platforms like Facebook, and Twitter can be helpful, even catalytic, for popular mobilisations. But as the authors of a recent report from the United States Institute of Peace note, there is a strong confirmation bias on that point. People only pay attention to the role of social media in political movements when the latter are gaining strength or moving forward. If the opposite happens -- if support begins to dwindle, or a campaign is stillborn -- it never occurs to anyone that online communication may have generated or amplified public fear, cynicism or passivity. That seems to be what happened with the Million Citizen March.

There's no substitute for the more inconvenient forms of activism, which require working with people you don't already know, and might not particularly like once you do. Not all solidarity involves friendship. But saying that doesn't mean discounting the possible value of social networking. The Facebook group "Calling for the Release of Zimbabwean Activists" is by far the best source of information on the detainees, and it provides a sense of what people around the world are doing to win their freedom.

Someone once defined politics as the art of knowing what to do next. Returning from that session with the bullhorn, I decided the next step would probably involve you, the readers of this weekly column, who have a vested interest in the release of Professor Gwisai and the other prisoners. Remember, they have been subjected to incarceration, beatings and the threat execution for holding what was, in essence, a seminar on current events. Although not an attack on academic freedom in the strictest sense, it constitutes a brutal assault on the life of the mind.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”, reads Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

Obviously that proclamation has about as much sway with the world’s despots as the declaration’s prohibition on “torture or … cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5). But the vanity of dictators is a curious thing. They do sometimes respond to public pressure from abroad. They can, on occasion, be shamed. And for the sake of the Zimbabwean political prisoners, we must try.

To that end, please consider endorsing and helping to circulate this call for the prisoners to be released and all charges dropped. It is literally a matter of life or death.

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