Zimbabwe arrests 44 for watching Arab unrest on TV

Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former Zimbabwean opposition politician who was arrested on Feb. 19, 2011 at a meeting organized in Harare for people to watch TV coverage of the unrest in the Middle East.
CBS/Sarah Carter
Munyaradzi Gwisai
Munyaradzi Gwisai
CBS/Sarah Carter

This story was filed by CBS News' Sarah Carter in Johannesburg.

Update at 2:26 p.m. ET: Shantha has confirmed that Munya and his comrades have just been formally charged for treason and subverting a constitutionally elected government. They were hand and leg cuffed as they were taken to prison.

Munyaradzi Giwsai is my friend. Those five words were never going to appear together in this story, but I've struggled to write it without them -- more than I've struggled with any other news story in my 18 year career.

I tried to sit down and write this for two days, but it wouldn't flow. It didn't work. I just couldn't write it as a straight news piece, because it's not. As I write this, I have calls in to various government officials here in South Africa to make them aware that Munya and 44 other people were arrested on Saturday in Harare, Zimbabwe.

They have yet to be charged, or given access to medicine (some of those arrested are HIV positive and in need of their antiretroviral medication). It's believed the alleged leaders of the meeting which was busted up by Zimbabwean authorities, including Munya, have been beaten.

When I call these officials, I do so as his friend, at the request of his wife, my dear friend Shantha Bloemen. I tell them what little we know: That Munya had organized a meeting to watch some of the video of the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia. Many people in Zimbabwe have no access to cable TV or the Internet, and many of those being held in Harare Central prison now are unemployed. Munya used to be a member of parliament for the opposition MDC, he is now a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe's law school and a committed leader of the International Socialist Organization. Even though we did not know he called this meeting, it came as no surprise to any of us -- he's also committed grassroots educator.

Munyaradzi Gwisai with his wife Shantha
Munyaradzi Gwisai and his wife Shantha during a recent holiday.
CBS/Sarah Carter

Zimbabwe has become a very poor country in recent years. Robert Mugabe, who turned 87 on Monday, ruled the nation as an unchallenged autocrat from 1980 until 2008, when he was forced into a power sharing arrangement with his rival, the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai, after a hotly disputed election.

It's widely believed that Mugabe is pushing for new elections this year, with the goal of ending the ill-fated power sharing government. Reports from his inner circle suggest that the mass protests have been of deep concern to Mugabe, and the arrest and detainment of Munya's group was meant as a warning to any and all Zimbabweans who might be contemplating protest.

The group's lawyers believe Munya and the other "leaders" of this group will be charged Wednesday with trying to "subvert" the government -- a charge which carries a possible 20 year prison sentence.

My family goes on holiday with Munya and Shantha and their daughter. We spent a week at Christmas camping on a remote beach where our 4-year-olds got "married," many times over, in a mock ceremony officiated by my 6-year-old daughter. So in my house, this is not just a friend but a de-facto in-law.

I spent the last 10 days in India working on a documentary with some master's students from the University of British Columbia. As we travelled between interviews and destinations, we had many discussions about ethics in a practical sense. As I said good-bye to the students, I was aware my friend Shantha was trying to call me. After a few failed attempts, I had to turn my phone off for the flight to Johannesburg. Nine hours later, almost immediately as I turned my phone on, Shantha reached me with the terrible news.

I have known many political leaders, human rights activists and others who have been arrested, even tortured and killed. I have seen and felt the pain of their loved ones, but this was different.

For the last few days we've been doing whatever we can to help Shantha and get the word out.

My children can read the newspaper headlines that line Johannesburg's roads. They can hear me on the phone and they all know Munya is in prison. They have read that he was beaten. It's hard to answer their questions. What are the right answers? It's almost a relief to drop them off at school -- a brief respite from the barrage of questions which I know won't stop until they're satisfied with my answers.

But there are no good answers. Munya is still in Harare Central with 44 other people. He's yet to be charged. His 5-year-old daughter Rosa is still wondering why he didn't come home on Saturday, and when he might.