Lawyers for 45 activists of Zimbabwe's International Socialist Organization arrested on Saturday and charged with treason for holding a meeting to discuss political events in Egypt and other Arab countries asked a Harare magistrate Thursday to refuse the request by state prosecutors to remand of the accused to police custody.
The leader of the group, former legislator Munyaradzi Gwisai, said the detained members of his organization were severely assaulted while held by police.
Gwisai and his colleagues face treason charges for attending a meeting where police say they conspired to topple the government through Egyptian-style protests.
The state alleges that the former member of Parliament for the Highfield constitutency of Harare and his colleagues discussed high unemployment, hunger and economic decay, and urged that President Robert Mugabe be forced out of office as were former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and ousted Tunisian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
The arrests came amid speculation Mugabe's ZANU-PF party is in a panic fearing that a process similar to those seen in the Mideast could take hold in Zimbabwe.
VOA Studio 7 correspondent Thomas Chiripasi reported that Gwisai, refusing to swear on the Bible, told the magistrate's court that he and his associates were assaulted by the police following a raid by authorities on the location where it was being held.
A high-spirited Gwisai said police called six members of his group to a room where they beat them. “Whenever I gave an answer that was not satisfactory, I was told to lie on my stomach and I was given lashes,” Gwisai said. He said the pain was indescribable.
He said the police tried to force him to admit that he had said “Abasha Mugabe,' a local form of the Portuguese phrase for “down with Mugabe." Gwisai charged that he was lashed 15 times and consequently was finding it difficult to sit and walk.
He told the court that even though Mr. Mugabe was an elected president, people could still revolt against him. “This is the reason why people went to war and died to ensure that people govern,” he told court.
Human Rights Watch joined other international organisations in calling for the charges against the International Socialist Organization activists to be dropped. The groups said the arrests are a part of campaign by ZANU-PF-linked forces to intimidate activists.
Human Right Watch said the arrest of activists watching videos of historic events is a pretext to block peaceful criticism of the government.
Senior researcher Tiseke Kasambala of Human Rights Watch told VOA Studio 7 reporter Tatenda Gumbo that the prosecution of the Gwisai group is clearly intended to chill discussion of events in Zimbabwe and elsewhere by political or civic activists.
For a closer look at the capital charges preferred against the activists, VOA reporter Patience Rusere turned to Harare lawyer Chris Mhike and ZANU-PF member Gabriel Chaibva. Mhike said that in purely legal terms what Gwisai and the others are being accused of cannot be equated with treason or subversion of the government.