|Activists were found guilty of “conspiracy to commit acts of public violence” aimed at toppling government [Reuters]|
A Zimbabwe court has fined six civic activists $500 each and ordered them to do community service for conspiring to commit public violence during a meeting in which they watched video footage of mass uprisings in Egypt that toppled its longtime ruler.
Harare magistrate Kudakwashe Jarabini on Wednesday ordered Munyaradzi Gwisai and five others to carry out 420 hours of community service or face a year in jail. He suspended another 12 months imprisonment on condition they
don’t commit another similar offense.
The group was arrested last year for holding a meeting it said was an academic lecture on democratic rights.
Jarabini found the activists guilty on Monday, saying that while watching a video was not a crime, the “manner and motive” of the February 2011 meeting showed bad intent.
He ruled that showing footage of uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt that included “nasty scenarios” was intended to arouse hostility toward Zimbabwe’s government.
The activists had faced a maximum prison sentence of up to ten years. Original charges of treason carrying a possible death sentence were dropped in months of legal wrangling.
Police had arrested 45 people who attended the meeting at a Harare hotel but 39 were later released after judicial officials said police mounted a “dragnet” campaign against alleged participants.
Gwisai, the outspoken radical leader of an international socialist organization in Zimbabwe, is a former opposition lawmaker.
In freeing the six on bail last year, a High Court judge described the case against them as weak and based on the evidence of one witness present at the meeting seen to have been an undercover police informer.
Gwisai and other members of the group complained earlier they were tortured by police and beaten with wooden planks and iron bars.
They said they were also told to confess that they called for the ouster of longtime Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, 88.
Mugabe has been in power since independence in 1980. Critics accuse him of violently suppressing his opponents.
Though he entered in a power-sharing deal with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the country’s longtime opposition leader after disputed,violence-plagued 2008 elections, Mugabe has said he has the power to unilaterally call elections this year to end the almost paralyzed coalition government.
Security authorities have said they will clamp down on any alleged plotters of “destabilization”.