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A group of 46 social and human rights activists appear in court in Harare, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. The group led by Munyaradzi Gwisai is alleged to have organized a meeting where they played video footage of the Egypt uprising allegedly “to inspire and motivate people to demonstrate against the government”. Police say attendees called for solidarity with Egyptian and Tunisian workers and intended to incite Zimbabweans to hold demonstrations against three decades of authoritarian rule by President Robert Mugabe (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/The Associated Press)
A group of 46 social and human rights activists appear in court in Harare, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. The group led by Munyaradzi Gwisai is alleged to have organized a meeting where they played video footage of the Egypt uprising allegedly “to inspire and motivate people to demonstrate against the government”. Police say attendees called for solidarity with Egyptian and Tunisian workers and intended to incite Zimbabweans to hold demonstrations against three decades of authoritarian rule by President Robert Mugabe (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/The Associated Press)

Libyan unrest shaking Mugabe's tree Add to ...

Zimbabwe's state broadcaster has pronounced its verdict on Libya: The situation is "stable" except for some "incidents of violence" in the "outlying towns."

The website of the state newspaper has even less to say. It features a lengthy report about roosters in Ecuador, but not a word about the hundreds of deaths in Libya. No word about the mercenaries gunning down protesters. No word about Moammar Gadhafi's threat to go "house to house" to eliminate the "cockroaches" who oppose him.

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Like many African autocrats, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is doing his best to silence the news from North Africa - and especially the news about Col. Gadhafi, a long-time friend who has funnelled more than $500-million in gifts, loans and oil subsidies to Zimbabwe over the past 15 years.

In a clear warning to any dissenters, the Zimbabwean police last weekend arrested 45 activists who were discussing the North Africa street revolutions and viewing videos of the uprisings. The 45 activists have now been charged with treason - a charge punishable by death - and accused of plotting a revolution. Several of them have testified that they were beaten and tortured in police custody.

There are unconfirmed reports that hundreds of Zimbabwean soldiers and police may have been sent to Libya as mercenaries to defend Col. Gadhafi's regime. When MPs asked about it in Zimbabwe's parliament this week, Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa did not confirm or deny the reports.

Across Africa, authoritarian regimes are censoring the news and clamping down on any protests inspired by North Africa. Street protests this month in Cameroon and Gabon, aimed at regimes that have been in power for decades, were quickly crushed by police.

In countries such as Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea, authorities have tried to muzzle any reporting about the North Africa people-power movements, according to monitoring by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent New York-based organization.

Zimbabwe, ruled by Mr. Mugabe since 1980, could be ripe for street protests. Its economy nearly collapsed after a wave of brutal violence by Mugabe loyalists against opposition supporters in 2008. Since then, unemployment and poverty have remained high, and frustrations are growing.

But Mr. Mugabe, who turned 87 this week, has vowed to stay in power. While he shares power with the opposition in a coalition government, he has retained control of all the key levers of power: the army, police, courts and state media. And he has used those levers to crack down on any talk of an Egypt-style uprising.

The Defence Minister, Mr. Mnangagwa, has vowed that any Zimbabweans who try to emulate the North Africa uprisings "will regret it" because the authorities "will not allow any chaos in this country."

The bloodshed in Libya is particularly sensitive for many African regimes because they received so much financial aid from Col. Gadhafi over the past two decades. The African Union, which was headed by Col. Gadhafi from 2009 to 2010, was slow to respond to Col. Gadhafi's violent crackdown on protesters, finally issuing only a brief statement of concern and a promise to "dispatch a mission" to the country.

"The response from African governments and the African Union took so long and was so feeble that it emboldens Gadhafi in clinging on to power," said Ingrid Srinath, secretary-general of Civicus, a coalition of civil-society groups.

There have been some rumours that Zimbabwe could offer refuge to Col. Gadhafi if he flees into exile. But despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that Libya has provided to Mr. Mugabe, the relationship between the two autocrats has become strained by financial disputes and by Libya's recent rapprochement with the West. It's unclear whether Mr. Mugabe is still friendly enough with Col. Gadhafi to provide him a haven in exile - but in the meantime he doesn't want the Libya crisis to inspire any ideas among his people.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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