Zimbabwe Holds Group On Treason Charges

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In Zimbabwe, 45 people were rounded up and charged with treason after gathering to view online news coverage of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. One man detained is a law professor at the University of Zimbabwe, who organized the meeting. Renee Montagne talks to Shantha Bloemen, the detained man's wife, about the situation in Harare.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It is not surprising that Zimbabwe's President Mugabe cracked down on activists just for gathering to watch the rebellions in North Africa. Once a freedom fighter himself, Mugabe's become something of a despot in the more than three decades he's ruled his country. And over that time, Moammar Gadhafi has been one of his biggest supporters. Among the 45 activists that Mugabe's government has now charged with treason is a law professor at the University of Zimbabwe, Munyaradzi Gwisai. We reached his wife Shantha Bloemen by cell phone in the capital Harare.

Thank you for joining us.

Ms. SHANTHA BLOEMEN: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Why would your husband and this group be arrested for treason for observing something that's happening in the news? I mean, what is the government's argument?

Ms. BLOEMEN: The government's argument, which was presented in brief in the courtroom, was that somehow by having this meeting and the discussion that they were inciting public revolt to lead to the overthrow of the current government. It's sort of ludicrous because they dont have any evidence. They have one intelligence officer who infiltrated the meeting and he's going to be the state witness.

But otherwise, basically they're making it up as they go.

MONTAGNE: And your husband was reportedly tortured when he was taken into custody?

Ms. BLOEMEN: Yes, he testified in court. Eight of them were taken to the basement of the Harare Central Police Station and forced to lie on the ground, and whipped with different instruments, and I can't even talk about the details. But it's very difficult to access people in Harare Police Station. They're living in very dirty cells. These are holding cells which people should have maximum of 48 hours.

MONTAGNE: Your husband testified about being lashed on the back. And Im quoting him now, called it "indescribable, sadistic, and a tragedy for Zimbabwe."

Ms. BLOEMEN: Yes, I think it is. I think we're in a terrible state of affairs. The whole thing is surreal, actually. The people who were there are mothers: One was a widow, she has two children who she tried to get through school; union workers, someone who works for progressive social justice, runs a small NGO. I mean these are not dangerous people.

MONTAGNE: To put it in a somewhat larger context, Robert Mugabe -longtime president of Zimbabwe - has had a long relationship with Moammar Gadhafi. But protests aren't really happening against Mugabe. What is the difference between the regimes in, say, Libya and the regime in Zimbabwe that would prevent people from rising up?

Ms. BLOEMEN: I think it's a difficult question. I think youve got to remember that Zimbabwe has been in an economic crisis for the last decade. And the result is that everyone has been preoccupied with survival - the very basic things, how to eat, you know, how to manage to get your kids to school, how to stay healthy. And these fundamental facts have meant that people dont have much energy to take on these larger issues

And I also think that, unfortunately, the opposition in some of the civil society has been divided, maybe successfully, by the strategy of the ruling party. So it means that you never have the confidence of a critical mass.

MONTAGNE: Would you say the moment is not now for the sort of uprisings that we're seeing in North Africa?

Ms. BLOEMEN: I would say that when we see whats happening with people simply meeting being charged with treason, a strong message is being sent that it's not worth it - that it's better that you dont think you can change things.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. BLOEMEN: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Shantha Bloemen is the chief of Communications for UNICEF's Africa Service Unit. Her husband has been charged with treason in Zimbabwe for showing online videos of the recent uprisings in North Africa.

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