Zimbabwean police detained 46 people, including a former lawmaker, for attending a lecture and discussion group on mass uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, an independent lawyers group said on Monday.
Police confirmed the arrests at a meeting convened on Saturday by the Zimbabwe branch of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) where videos were shown and an agenda item allegedly asked: “What lessons can be learnt by the working class in Zimbabwe and Africa?”
Police spokesperson James Sabau told state radio that authorities would clamp down on any alleged plotters of “destabilisation” against the government.
The independent Lawyers for Human Rights said those detained in Harare and expected to appear in court on Monday were holding an “academic discussion” on North Africa and deny any wrongdoing.
The group said police were drafting charges Monday against former opposition lawmaker Munyaradi Gwisai, an official of the ISO, and labour and student activists arrested with him.
Police say attendees called for solidarity with Egyptian and Tunisian workers and intended to incite Zimbabweans to hold demonstrations against three decades of authoritarian rule by President Robert Mugabe.
United States State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley criticised the arrests in a comment posted to Twitter.
“Activists meet in Zimbabwe to discuss the implications of Egypt and Tunisia and end up arrested. Mugabe did not learn the right lessons,” Crowley wrote.
Questioned by police
The protests at the northern tip of the continent have drawn attention elsewhere in southern Africa. In Malawi, a university professor in the eastern city of Zomba was questioned by a senior police officer after he reportedly drew parallels in his classroom between protests over fuel shortages in Malawi and the demonstrations that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Professors in Zomba have been on strike since last week, demanding that police apologise and pledge not to repeat such a questioning.
Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, meanwhile, turned 87 Monday. He returned home Sunday from a weeklong trip to Singapore where he underwent medical checks after a cataract operation on a previous visit in January, his office said.
State radio said Mugabe will celebrate his birthday on Saturday with children and young leaders, an annual tradition, the radio said, that encourages young people to follow his example as a statesman. On Monday, state TV showed him blowing out candles.
Mugabe arrived quietly Sunday and broke with his tradition by not addressing his supporters who had gathered at the main Harare airport to greet him.
Mugabe’s party has denied reports he underwent cancer-related surgery during an extended vacation in Asia in January.
The party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader in a shaky two-year-old coalition government, says Mugabe’s absences have disrupted routine government business since December. — AP