Munyaradzi Gwisai, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe's law school, was showing internet videos about the tumult sweeping across North Africa to students and activists last Saturday, when state security agents burst into his office.
The agents seized laptop computers, DVD discs and a video projector before arresting 45 people, including Gwisai, who runs the Labor Law Center at the University of Zimbabwe. All 45 have been charged with treason - which can carry a sentence of life imprisonment or death - for, in essence, watching viral videos.
Gwisai and five others were brutally tortured during the next 72 hours, he testified Thursday at an initial hearing.
There were "assaults all over the detainees' bodies, under their feet and buttocks through the use of broomsticks, metal rods, pieces of timber, open palms and some blunt objects," The Zimbabwean newspaper reports, in an account of the court proceedings.
Under dictator Robert Mugabe, watching internet videos in Zimbabwe can be a capital offense, it would seem. The videos included BBC World News and Al-Jazeera clips, which Gwisai had downloaded from Kubatana, a web-based activist group in Zimbabwe.
Nine out of 10 people lack internet access in Zimbabwe, and cable TV is an extravagant luxury. DStv, the monopoly satellite provider, costs $70 per month –- out of reach for most people in a country where teachers make $150 per month.
Gwisai's meetings are an opportunity for the Zimbabweans who attend them to catch a rare glimpse of international media.
Gwisai's wife, Shantha Bloemen, said in an interview with Wired.com that her husband had gathered with students and activists at his Labor Law Center in Harare. The idea was to watch news reports about the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and then hold an academic discussion about democracy. The title of the seminar: "Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia. What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa."
"They have regular meetings where they show films and documentaries on different social issues," said Bloemen, an Australian-American who works for the United Nations in Johannesburg. "With the events of the day being Egypt and Tunisia, they wanted to have a meeting and a discussion around those issues."
Appearing in a Zimbabwe court Thursday on charges of treason, Gwisai testified that he and five others had been tortured by nine state security agents who beat him and other detainees as they lay on the ground of a cell in the basement of Harare Central prison.
Gwisai described the pain as "indescribable, sadistic and a tragedy for Zimbabwe," and said the goal of the beatings was to produce a confession on the charge of treason.
Gwisai testified that the meeting was held to watch videos of news reports about the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and then discuss and debate the concept of democracy -– not to foment a rebellion against Mugabe.
Activists said the Central Intelligence Organization, Zimbabwe's secret police, had infiltrated the group.
Reached by phone, a relative of one of the detainees who asked to remain anonymous described Mugabe's crackdown as "a pre-emptive strike."
"It's a clear indication of the fear and paranoia of this regime," the relative said.
Mark Canning, Britain's ambassador to Zimbabwe, which was a British colony until 1980, condemned the detentions and the treatment of the defendants.
"The charge of treason leveled against the group for apparently watching footage of events in other countries, which is readily and publicly available in the media, is excessive and politically motivated," Canning said in a statement. "It shows the continuing abuse of the legal system by elements of the state opposed to reform and basic human rights."
Gwisai's lawyers have filed several countercharges against the police for torture, illegal detention and poor conditions, among other charges.
Mugabe is known as one of the most ruthless and vicious dictators in the world, and it appears he has managed to terrorize his own people sufficiently that the prospect of any sort of popular uprising is very remote.
"They're too fractured and fearful," Bloemen said of Zimbabwe's opposition movement. "They're inspired by what has happened in North Africa, but you have to reach a turning point, a critical mass, to convince people it's worth it and you're going to succeed. That's always been the difficult question in Zimbabwe, getting that critical mass."
The next court hearing is Monday in Harare. Until then, the 45 defendants remain incarcerated.
Friends and colleagues of the detainees have set up a Facebook page calling for their release.
Photo: Munyaradzi Gwisai (Courtesy Shantha Bloemen)