Zimbabwe has arrested dozens of activists on charges of plotting protests against long-serving President Robert Mugabe similar to those that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, said police.
Police detained 46 people in the capital Harare as they watched videos of protests in the north African countries and discussed possible demonstrations in Zimbabwe, said Inspector James Sabau, police spokesman for Harare province.
“The agenda of the meeting was the revolt in Egypt and Tunisia — what lessons can be learnt for the working class in Zimbabwe and Africa,” he told reporters.
However, a defence lawyer said his clients, who were arrested on Saturday, would deny plotting any anti-government protests when they appear in court this week, Reuters reports.
Critics say Mugabe, who turned 87 on Monday and has been in office for 31 years, has used tough policing and vote rigging to keep his grip on power despite an economic crisis in the past decade which many blame on his mismanagement.
Those arrested included trade unionists, student leaders and Munyaradzi Gwisai, who heads a small but radical pressure group, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO). They were detained at a meeting called by Gwisai.
“Videos of the uprising in Egypt and Tunisia were being shown to the guests who attended as a way to motivate the people to subvert a constitutionally-elected government,” Sabau said.
“It has been said before by our commanders and I will say it again, the Egyptian-style (protests) have no place in Zimbabwe,” Sabau said. He declined to discuss any further details of the case, saying the accused would be taken to court this week.
Defence lawyer Marufu Mandevere denied his clients were plotting anti-government protests. “When the case goes to court, the accused will deny those allegations because as far as they are concerned, they were arrested while they were having a normal academic debate,” he said.
Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing government with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) about two years ago, and is pressing for fresh elections. Many say this would favour Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party if no major political reforms are put in place, including a new constitution and improved voter registration.
Tsvangirai said last week his MDC would boycott any general election called before these reforms.
Gwisai, a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, is a former MP with the MDC. However, he was expelled from parliament and the party for supporting Mugabe’s seizures of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to landless blacks.
Gwisai said at the time his support for Mugabe’s policy was in line with his beliefs as a socialist.
Mugabe, who returned home on Sunday after a week in Singapore for a review of an eye cataract operation in December, is due to celebrate his birthday at a rally organised by his ZANU-PF party this weekend.