Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on Tuesday night expressed shock following the conviction of six activists found watching videos of Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings last year.
University of Zimbabwe lecturer Munyaradzi Gwisai and five others were on Monday found guilty of plotting an uprising against President Robert Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
The prosecution on Tuesday called for the maximum 10-year jail sentence to be imposed on Gwisai, Antonette Choto, Tatenda Mombeyarara, Edson Chakuma, Hopewell Gumbo and Welcome Zimuto.
But Tsvangirai said while he respected the courts, the conviction served to project an image of a country that perpetrated gross human rights abuses.
He said he was “disturbed that the government he serves could criminalise people watching videos as plotting to unseat the government”.
“This not only besmirches the government’s image, but serves to confirm that Zimbabwe has not moved an inch in its respect for human rights,” he said in a statement issued by his spokesperson Luke Tamborinyoka.
“The PM remains deeply disturbed by this and shares with the nation the shock at the laughable conviction and the criminalisation of material that is already in the public domain.
“The conviction is a grave assault on human rights and the Prime Minister, a staunch human rights defender in his own right, shares the grief of the six activists, their families and their relatives.”
On Tuesday, provincial magistrate Kudakwashe Jarabini heard mitigation submissions from the activists’ lawyer Aleck Muchadehama.
Prosecutor Edmore Nyazamba said the six intended to commit a serious crime and deserved a long custodial sentence.
“Any sentence less than 10 years will only bring the justice delivery system to ridicule,” Nyazemba said.
But Muchadehama said the six were first-time offenders and they were not involved in public violence.
“A fine will be justified looking at their personal circumstances,” he said.
“It is not necessary to imprison the accused or to give them community service because the crime was not committed.
“I propose a fine in the region of $500.”
Nyazamba argued that planning to commit the crime was in itself a serious matter.
He claimed there was a likelihood protests similar to those that toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak could be staged in Zimbabwe.
“Even if the revolts did not take place, the court should take into account the historical background which our country shares with Egypt,” Nyazamba said.
“Both countries are (former) British colonies and it happened at Tahir Square and here they said they would start at Africa Unity Square.”
Gwisai and his co-accused were arrested after police raided them at a meeting they were conducting. They will be sentenced on Wednesday.