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Zimbabweans appeal conviction for watching videos

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Six Zimbabwean activists convicted of conspiring to commit violence for watching videos of Arab uprisings are appealing their conviction and sentences, their attorneys said Monday.

Attorney Alec Muchadehama said he filed appeal papers arguing that if the group did actually plot violence at their February 2011 meeting, as the court found, they should have been prosecuted for treason, a charge that carries a possible death sentence. The group says the court’s ruling is “misguided.”

If watching videos on Egypt and Tunisia was a crime as Harare magistrate Kudakwashe Jarabini ruled, “they were supposed to be convicted of treason,” according to the appeal documents submitted to the magistrate’s court.

Muchadehama said he is also applying for the $500 fines, suspended imprisonment and community service handed to the group to be set aside. The court ruling was also based on evidence of a “dishonest witness” who lied about his true identity as a police officer when he infiltrated group, he said.

Jarabini said on March 21 he took a “compassionate approach” by not sending to the activists to jail.

In an apparent bid to head off intense local and international outrage over the case _ along with frequent accusations of bias by the nation’s courts in favor of President Robert Mugabe _ Jarabini said he sought to pass a deterrent sentence but didn’t want to give Zimbabweans “a sense of shock.”

Muchadehama said the activists led by Munyaradzi Gwisai, a 44-year-old law lecturer and former opposition legislator, now want the case thrown out altogether.

He said an appeal could take months to be heard.

Jarabini found that that while watching a video was not a crime, the “manner and motive” of the February 2011 meeting showed bad intent. He ruled that showing footage of an Arab uprising that included “nasty scenarios” was intended to incite violence.

Jarabini said he took note that the activists were arrested before any violence had taken place. They had watched the North African footage at a time the nation’s political environment was “conducive to easily inciting a riot,” his ruling said.

Police arrested 45 people who attended the Harare meeting, but 39 were later released after judicial officials said police mounted a “dragnet” campaign against alleged participants.

Though Mugabe entered in a power-sharing deal with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai after disputed, violence-plagued 2008 elections, Mugabe has said he has the power to unilaterally call elections this year to end the almost paralyzed coalition government.

Security authorities have said they will clamp down on any alleged plotters of “destabilization.”

Gwisai, head of an international socialist group in Zimbabwe, and other members of the group testified at an earlier court hearing that they were tortured by police and beaten with wooden planks and iron bars. They said they were told to confess that they plotted the ouster of longtime ruler Mugabe, 88.

Mugabe has been in power since independence in 1980. Critics accuse him of violently suppressing his opponents and giving impunity to his supporters during a decade-long breakdown of law and order.

In neighboring South Africa on Monday, the High Court was forced to postpone a landmark case brought by the independent Southern Africa Litigation Center and the Zimbabwean Exiles Forum to compel South Africa to investigate and prosecute high-level Zimbabwean officials accused of crimes against humanity and torture.

The postponement came after a new attorney was appointed by the state prosecution service just days before the case was due to start amid claims of “bullying tactics,” manipulation and reluctance to proceed by the state and the government of President Jacob Zuma, the chief regional mediator on Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis.

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