Release the six

Peter Manson calls for solidarity with Zimbabwean comrades

On Wednesday March 16 the six leftwing militants still being held in Zimbabwe on ludicrous, trumped-up charges of treason were finally granted bail - at US$2,000 per head. The International Socialist Organisation, to which three of the comrades belong, has launched an urgent appeal to raise the necessary $12,000.

Until the cash is handed over, the ordeal of Munyaradzi Gwisai, Tafadzwa Choto, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Hopewell Gumbo, Edson Chakuma and Welcome Zimuto will continue. They have been held since February 19, when police broke up a meeting in solidarity with the movement for democracy in Tunisia and Egypt and arrested a total of 46 people for “plotting to subvert the government by unconstitutional means”. Since then, the six have suffered appalling treatment, including severe beatings, denial of food and medical attention, and solitary confinement in filthy conditions.

Edzai Matica, who works alongside comrade Gwisai in the Zimbabwe Labour Centre and describes himself as a “de facto member of the ISO”, told me: “From the 19th to the 24th, when they were taken to court for the first time, the six were all beaten. They believe it was people from the Central Intelligence Organisation, not police officers, who assaulted them.” They were made to lie on their stomachs and comrade Gwisai, a former member of parliament in the early days of the Movement for Democratic Change, reports receiving between 15 and 20 blows in one torture session.

The female comrades were not spared this brutality - including comrade Choto, who suffers badly from asthma and an ongoing condition for which she has recently had three operations. As with all the others, she was denied the medication and treatment she needs until the prisoners won a court order after two weeks, giving them the right to be examined by a doctor of their choice. The aim of the CIO state thugs was to ‘persuade’ the comrades to confess to subversion (not at this stage “treason”, a charge which was sprung on them at a subsequent court appearance) - or at least become a state witness. One of those arrested actually agreed to testify for the prosecution and was promptly released under police protection. But all the others adamantly refused to betray their comrades, maintaining that it is not a crime to fight for the interests of the working class and progressive movements.

A further 37 people were released on March 7, the magistrate ruling they had no case to answer. Not all of them had even been at the meeting, which the police used as their excuse for their draconian action. Comrade Matica said: “I believe five of them were arrested just for being in or near the building where the meeting was taking place, but they had nothing to do with it.”

The six comrades still being held were particularly targeted for their role in the movement. ISO members Choto and Mombeyarara are, like Munyaradzi Gwisai, Zimbabwe Labour Centre officers, while Hopewell Gumbo is a former president of the Zimbabwe National Union of Students and prominent anti-debt campaigner. Comrade Zimuto is another NUS activist, and Edson Chakuma is an Ufawu union militant.

So they continue to endure unspeakable conditions - at least for the moment, until sufficient US dollars can be raised for their bail, which, hopefully, will be within a day or so. Comrade Matica told me: “There is no running water, and no blankets - they are just sleeping in their clothes.” Virtually no food is provided, except by friends and relatives, and even then it can only be taken in the afternoon. People attempting to take the comrades supplies in the early evening have been turned away. “They were held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day”, and this included being manacled for days at a time. “They are complaining about the lice. I could see Munyaradzi has developed some kind of rash on his face caused by the lice. You can see frustration on their faces. They’ve been held so long now - almost a month since they were arrested.”

Comrade Matica himself had, obviously, not been at the solidarity meeting, but had been able to piece together what had gone on from his numerous prison visits and discussions with the released comrades: “The meeting was to discuss the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt, with invited speakers to lead the discussion. They were watching a video, which actually consisted of different news reports from international channels like CNN, Sky and Al Jazeera - I have seen one of the disks. It was of demonstrations and so on.”

The meeting had started at about 2pm, but was broken up by about 100 police officers an hour later. The official media say the “lessons” the ISO was hoping to learn from Tunisia and Egypt was how to launch an uprising against the regime of president Robert Mugabe. Fortunately the plotters were interrupted before they could finalise their plans - or so the official line goes.

The bail application was vehemently opposed by the prosecution, on the grounds that the accused all have connections outside the country and may abscond. Also, they may continue plotting to overthrow the government - treason, after all, is a very serious offence carrying the death penalty - and could interfere with witnesses and tamper with evidence. Of course, the authorities, by contrast, are meticulous in their upholding of judicial propriety.

Apart from the punitive cash sums demanded as surety (even for a university lecturer like comrade Gwisai), the comrades must stay at specified addresses, surrender their passports and all travel documents, and report three times a week to CID Law and Order in Harare. The prosecution may yet appeal against the granting of bail and it could well be a year before any trial begins.

I asked comrade Matica why he thought the state has decided to move against the ISO. Affiliated to the Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialist Tendency, it is not exactly a huge or influential grouping. It has recently appeared to splinter, with at least two small groups breaking away. Since he is not a full member, comrade Matica did not feel able to talk about the size or health of the ISO, but he told me that “Anything is possible in Zimbabwe”, meaning that even a group like the ISO could suddenly become a real threat.

“They want to make an example of the comrades - that’s how it’s being reported in the media.” Besides, it is not just the ISO: “There have been a lot of arrests. In fact three officials from the Movement for Democratic Change have just been arrested for no reason at MDC headquarters.” The MDC, set up in 2000 by the trade union movement under the leadership of former Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions president Morgan Tsvangirai, was eventually taken over by an alliance of middle class blacks and white farmers, backed by international capital. It is now part of a ‘power-sharing’ government of ‘national unity’ alongside Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. The former union leader holds no less a post than prime minister.

Comrade Matica said: “The last time I heard Tsvangirai speaking at a press conference, he was saying it was dubious to arrest someone like Munyaradzi Gwisai. He was saying Munyaradzi wouldn’t hurt a fly and shouldn’t be detained.” Well, if that is the view of the prime minister ... Clearly all this says a lot about the balance of power between Zimbabwe’s two main parties.

Comrade Matica ended our interview with an appeal for solidarity. Support the international day of protest on Monday March 21. Send a donation to the bank account set up in South Africa to support the prisoners, their families and their defence. Go to the website comrade Matica himself has helped launch (www.freethemnow.com), sign the online petition and leave a solidarity message. “Publicise the case widely to let the Mugabe government know that the arrests are unjustified. Zimbabwe claims it is democratic, allows freedom of speech and freedom of association, and upholds human rights.”

Day of protest

Monday March 21, 12 noon: Picket Zimbabwe embassy, 29 The Strand, London WC2.


Account name: ‘CDL Solidarity Fund’; account number: 100 185 3784; Swift code: NEDSZAJJ. Reference: ‘Zimbabwean treason trialists’.
Receiving bank: Nedbank, Killarney branch (code: 191 60535), Johannesburg, South Africa.