(CNN) -- Political activists and union members arrested in Zimbabwe last week and accused of plotting an Egyptian-style uprising against longtime President Robert Mugabe were beaten by state security agents, their attorney said Thursday.
At least 12 of the 46 activists were beaten with broomsticks on their buttocks and the soles of their feet, defense attorney Alec Muchadehama told a packed courtroom on Thursday.
The 46 defendants have been charged with treason, prosecutors said Wednesday. The charge carries a death sentence in Zimbabwe. The hearing will continue on Monday, and the defendants will remain in custody.
The group was arrested Saturday after authorities said they were caught watching footage of the protests that led to the ouster of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia in January and of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak two weeks ago.
"On 16 February they held a meeting and the purpose of the meeting was to organize, strategize and implement the removal of a constitutional government of Zimbabwe by unconstitutional means, the Tunisian-Egyptian way," prosecutor Edmore Nyazamba said in court Wednesday. "In their speeches, the accused highlighted that there was a long serving dictator/authoritarian leader, general hunger, poverty, unemployment and capitalist tendencies where wealth is enjoyed by a few individuals while the general populace is suffering."
Muchadehama, a human rights lawyer, requested that a government doctor examine the defendants, especially those who are HIV-positive or claim to have been tortured.
He said the government has no basis to charge his clients with treason.
"What happened in Egypt and Tunisia is that people gathered and demonstrated and their leaders resigned or abdicated their seats," Muchadehama said. "No treason was committed in the two countries. If watching television footage of the uprisings was treason, most Zimbabweans would be guilty of it because we watch news daily."
A former opposition lawmaker who heads the International Socialist Organization testified Thursday that Zimbabweans have a right to take their grievances to their leaders through open discussion.
"Events in Egypt and Tunisia show that the basis of legitimate power in democratic societies lies with the people," Munyaradzi Gwisai said. "Marches, singing and protests are fundamental human rights through which people can address those who govern them."
Mugabe, who turned 87 on Monday, has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. Like Mubarak and Ben Ali, he has been accused of rigging elections and instituting repressive laws to tighten his grip on power.
The arrests may be an indication authorities are worried that the winds of change sweeping across north Africa may inspire Zimbabweans to rise up. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, which is in a troubled unity government with Mugabe's ZANU-PF, has called the arrests "an abuse of state machinery by ZANU-PF to suppress the people's views."
Mugabe's policies over the past 10 years have been blamed for plunging the once-prosperous country into an unprecedented economic crisis. Mugabe has called for an election this year, but his political rival and leader of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai, has threatened to boycott the poll if a referendum on a new constitution is not held.
CNN's Nkepile Mabuse contributed to this report.