Six Zimbabwean rights activists were Wednesday fined and ordered to do community service in their communities for conspiring to commit public violence during a meeting at which they watched video footage of mass uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia last February.
Sentencing former Highfield lawmaker Munyaradzi Gwisai and his co-accused, Hopewell Gumbo, Antonater Choto, Edson Chakuma, Tatenda Mombeyarara, and Welcome Zimuto, Magistrate Kudakwashe Jarabhini said the group should pay a fine of $500 each and perform 420 hours of community service.
He said the activists would be sent to jail for ten months if they failed to pay the stipulated fine, while suspending 24 months for five years on condition of good behaviour.
In his reasons, the magistrate said he could not send Gwisai to prison because he had a social responsibility of educating students at the University of Zimbabwe where he is a law lecturer.
He added that Choto could also not be sentenced to a jail term due to ill health while other accused persons had minor children to look after.
However, Jarabhini warned the public should not view this non-custodial sentence as an inducement to commit similar offences, especially, he said, as the unity government principals are all advocating for peace in the country.
He said the fine should be paid on or before the 26th of March.
Attorney Alec Muchadehama said he would appeal against both the conviction and sentence in the High Court.
He said he would ask the court on March 26 to suspend the community service pending the High Court’s ruling on the appeal.
Gwisai and his colleagues were arrested on February 19 last year together with 40 others during a meeting where they watched a video of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
They were charged with treason but authorities later dropped that charge and preferred charges of conspiracy to commit public violence. Charges against the other 40 were dropped before the trial began.
Torture victim and rights activist Grace Kwinjeh says although it is good news that the group will not go to jail, draconian laws are still going to be used to oppress Zimbabweans.
She told the VOA's Violet Gonda the tragedy is that the activists, who were allegedly tortured while in custody, were facing a serious jail term of ten years, and were therefore placed in a difficult situation where they were forced to negotiate for a lesser sentence.
“We can celebrate that they are not in jail but most certainly we cannot celebrate that they are going to serve community service for watching a video that we have all watched including state security agents, the Attorney General and the President of Zimbabwe himself.”
Kwinjeh urged the pro-democracy movement to also focus attention to the case of former ZAPU leader Paul Siwela and two others who are facing treason charges for allegedly distributing flyers on behalf of the Mthwakazi Liberation Front pressure group agitating for “Egyptian-style” uprisings.
The activist also said there has not been ‘enough noise’ about Solomon Madzore and others who have been languishing in prison for the last five months.
“Unless there is reform in the Attorney General’s Office and judiciary services, we are going to have that (arrests) as a draining part of our struggle,” Kwinjeh added.
Meanwhile, five members of the Zimbabwe National Students Union were arrested outside the court-building while celebrating the activists’ light sentence. The students were singing outside the court-building and distributing fliers calling for basic freedoms to be upheld in the country.