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From Seminar to Jail Cell

From Seminar to Jail Cell

March 9, 2011

Right now, six people are being held in solitary confinement in Zimbabwe -- released from their cells each day, according to a report from family members, for just 30 minutes in the morning and another 30 minutes in the late afternoon. They have not even gone on trial yet. When they do, the death sentence is a real possibility. Their offense is that they organized a meeting where video footage from the recent mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt was screened and the events there were discussed.

I do not know this for certain, but it seems likely that they also may have incited people to commit acts of reading. One of the masterminds behind the gathering, after all, was was Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former Member of Parliament and leader of the the International Socialist Organization of Zimbabwe. He also teaches labor law at the U of Z. You know how it is with both professors and radicals. They are always trying to get you to read something.

Now, all this unauthorized thinking about the outside world is clearly a matter of grave concern to the regime of Robert Mugabe, who has been running Zimbabwe for as long as it’s been called “Zimbabwe.” That comes to 31 years now -- just a little longer than Hosni Mubarak was in power in Egypt. On February 19, as the meeting was taking place at the Labour Law Center in the capital city of Harare, security forces raided it and arrested dozens of people, including students and trade union members. They were detained for a week at a police station, without legal counsel, and a number of them later described being “beaten with broomsticks, metal rods, and blunt objects on their bodies and the soles of their feet,” according to a article in The New York Times.

On Monday of this week, 39 of the prisoners were finally released. The six who remain in custody are being charged with treason; if found guilty, they could be executed. Meanwhile, other opposition groups are being harassed, with at least one MP being arrested. Evidently this is the government’s way of preparing for the national election to be held later this year. President Mugabe is, as the old saying goes, a firm advocate of the two-party system: there should be one party in power, and the other in jail.

Last Tuesday, with my column for the week not quite done, I hurried over to the Embassy of Zimbabwe in Washington, DC, which is just a few blocks from Inside Higher Ed's world headquarters. There was what any activist must feel obliged to call "a small but spirited demonstration" on the sidewalk in front of the place. We gave leaflets to passers-by, and people in cars honked their horns in what one hoped was solidarity. At one point I even directed a few choice words, by bullhorn, to any of the diplomatic staff who might have been inside. (This was not cathartic. It would have been better to say them in person, but the front gate was locked.) And then I rushed back home, to my desk and my deadline, trying to put out of mind the image of being whipped on the soles of the feet with a metal rod.

That very same day (March 1) turned out to be the occasion of the Million Citizen March in Zimbabwe, which was organized on Facebook. The press abroad gave it almost no coverage. In a way, this was understandable, since nobody showed up for the Million Citizen March. One of the few reporters who did mention it found widespread suspicion that the whole thing was “a ploy by Zimbabwe’s intelligence service to lure activists onto the streets so they can be arrested.”

The benign neglect by the media of this not-quite-historical event is worth some reflection, though. As I wrote in this column a month ago, there has lately been a strong presumption that social networking is, as such, democratogenic. It is true that platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Twitter can be helpful, even catalytic, for popular mobilizations. But as the authors of a recent report from the United States Institute of Peace note, there is a strong confirmation bias on that point. People only pay attention to the role of social media in political movements when the latter are gaining strength or moving forward. If the opposite happens -- if support begins to dwindle, or a campaign is stillborn -- it never occurs to anyone that online communication may have generated or amplified public fear, cynicism, or passivity. That seems to be what happened with the Million Citizen March.

There's no substitute for the more inconvenient forms of activism, which require working with people you don't already know, and might not particularly like once you do. Not all solidarity involves friendship. But saying that doesn't mean discounting the possible value of social networking. The Facebook group "Calling for the Release of Zimbabwean Activists" is by far the best source of information on the detainees, and it provides a sense of what people around the world are doing to win their freedom.

Someone once defined politics as the art of knowing what to do next. Returning from that session with the bullhorn, I decided the next step would probably involve you, the readers of this weekly column, who have a vested interest in the release of Professor Gwisai and the other prisoners. Remember, they have been subjected to incarceration, beatings, and the threat execution for holding what was, in essence, a seminar on current events. Although not an attack on academic freedom in the strictest sense, it constitutes a brutal assault on the life of the mind.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” reads Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; “this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Obviously that proclamation has about as much sway with the world’s despots as the Declaration’s prohibition on “torture or … cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5). But the vanity of dictators is a curious thing. They do sometimes respond to public pressure from abroad. They can, on occasion, be shamed. And for the sake of the Zimbabwean political prisoners, we must try.

To that end, please consider endorsing and helping to circulate this call for the prisoners to be released and all charges dropped. It is literally a matter of life or death.

 

 

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