A Zimbabwe court said Wednesday it took a "compassionate approach" by not sending to jail six civic activists convicted of conspiring to commit public violence during a meeting in which they watched video footage of the mass uprisings in Egypt.
Harare magistrate Kudakwashe Jarabini fined the activists $500 each and ordered them to carry out 420 hours of community service or face a year in jail. He suspended another 12 months imprisonment on condition they don't commit a similar offense over the next five years.
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 send out "a sense of shock" to Zimbabweans.
The group was arrested last year for holding a meeting it said was an academic lecture on democratic rights.
Jarabini found the activists guilty on Monday, saying 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 uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt that included "nasty scenarios" was intended to arouse hostility toward Zimbabwe's government.
The activists had faced a maximum prison sentence of up to ten years. Original charges of treason carrying a possible death sentence were dropped in months of legal wrangling.
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."
Police had arrested 45 people who attended the meeting at a Harare hotel, but 39 were later released after judicial officials said police mounted a "dragnet" campaign against alleged participants.
Munyaradzi Gwisai, a law lecturer at the main Zimbabwe university who convened the meeting, said after receiving his sentence Wednesday he was not cowed by the actions of authorities loyal to Mugabe.
"The dictatorship is shaken but it has not yet fallen. The struggle will continue. It is a temporary reprieve," he said. "The real reason they wanted to put us in jail is to set an example ahead of their agenda to steal elections," he said.
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."
Riot police dispersed scores of supporters chanting and singing outside the Harare courthouse after the sentence was given.
The Crisis Coalition of democracy and human rights activists in a statement described the case as a serious indictment of Zimbabwe's judicial system.
At least 200 people died in election violence in 2008 with little action taken by police to arrest perpetrators.
"Yet on political grounds six individuals are found guilty of watching a video," it said, adding it was "mind boggling" state prosecutors had called for the maximum penalty of ten years in prison.
Tsvangirai also said Wednesday "laughable" actions by authorities hurt the nation's image.
"The conviction is a grave assault on human rights" by the government he served, he said.
In a decade of political and economic turmoil, independent lawyers groups have repeatedly pointed to selective enforcement of sweeping security and media laws and skewed court judgments against Mugabe's perceived opponents.
In freeing the six activists on bail last year, a High Court judge described the case against them as weak and based on the evidence of one witness present at the meeting seen as an undercover police informer.
That court described as "bold and unsubstantiated" police claims that the group planned to emulate the Egyptian revolt.
Gwisai, the 44-year-old leader of an international socialist group in Zimbabwe, and other members of the group testified earlier they were tortured by police and beaten with wooden planks and iron bars. They said they were also 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, destroying the economy in the former regional breadbasket that now depends on food imports and giving impunity to his supporters during a decade-long breakdown of law and order.