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Washington concerned over torture allegations in Zimbabwe

By the CNN Wire Staff
Munyaradzi Gwisai (C with dreadlocks) was charged with treason over a meeting discussing the Egypt mass protests.
Munyaradzi Gwisai (C with dreadlocks) was charged with treason over a meeting discussing the Egypt mass protests.
  • Allegations that some activists beaten on their buttocks and soles of their feet
  • A ruling on the charges' merits is expected March 7
  • U.S. State Department spokesman calls for "immediate action" if torture occurred
  • Zimbabwe
  • Robert Mugabe

Washington (CNN) -- The United States expressed concern Thursday about recent arrests in Zimbabwe of political and civil society activists and allegations by their lawyer that some of them were tortured.

On February 19, former Movement for Democratic Change Member of Parliament Munyaradzi Gwisai and 45 other labor union and student activists "who had gathered peacefully to discuss recent events in Egypt" were arrested and charged with treason, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said in a statement.

Other political and civil society activists have also been arrested, he said.

"Gwisai's defense attorney has reported that several of the 46 people were tortured while in custody, and we understand that the magistrate has ordered physical examinations to substantiate those claims," he said. "We call on the government to provide medical attention for those who need it and, if torture occurred, to take immediate action to hold the perpetrators accountable."

A ruling on the charges' merits is to be delivered March 7.

Crowley called on the government of Zimbabwe to uphold rights spelled out under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to ensure that those arrested are guaranteed due process.

Zimbabwean authorities said the 46 people were arrested and charged with treason after they were caught watching footage of the protests that led to the ouster of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

"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 last week in court.

At least 12 of the activists were beaten with broomsticks on their buttocks and the soles of their feet, defense attorney Alec Muchadehama told a packed courtroom on Thursday. All 46 defendants were charged with treason, a charge that carries a death sentence in Zimbabwe.

"If watching television footage of the uprisings was treason, most Zimbabweans would be guilty of it because we watch news daily," Muchadehama said.

Robert Mugabe, 87, 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 that authorities are worried that the changes 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 decade have been blamed for plunging the once-prosperous country into 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.