Six Zimbabwean activists convicted of airing Arab Spring videos as part of a plot against President Robert Mugabe were fined and sentenced to community service on Wednesday, a milder punishment than the 10 years jail that could have been handed down.
The group, led by Munyaradzi Gwisai, a former opposition lawmaker in Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party, was found guilty on Monday of "conspiracy to commit acts of public violence" against Mugabe.
Magistrate Kudakwashe Jarabini said the activists had conspired to commit a serious crime, but fined them $500 each and ordered them to perform 420 hours of community service as they had not carried out their plans.
"The court has taken cognisance of the fact that the accused didn't get to the full commission of the crime," Jarabini said. "The court has chosen a more compassionate approach to the accused," he said, as sighs of relief were heard in the packed courtroom.
All defendants have denied the charges. Defence lawyers said they would appeal against both the conviction and sentence.
A small group of students aligned to Gwisai's radical International Socialist Organisation clashed with police outside the courtroom as they sang revolutionary songs denouncing Mugabe and the police.
A Reuters witness saw four students being led away by the police as the rest of the group fled.
"This is a people's victory," one student shouted.
State prosecutors had pushed for the maximum sentence of 10 years in jail, saying this would deter anyone who wanted to commit a similar crime against Mugabe, who has ruled the southern African state since independence from Britain in 1980.
In another sign of tensions within an uneasy government coalition, Tsvangirai's spokesperson criticised the conviction as "laughable".
"The prime minister remains deeply disturbed by this," his spokesperson said.
Human rights groups also slammed the ruling, saying Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party were embarking on a fresh crackdown on dissent ahead of elections that he wants to call this year.
Prosecutors alleged Gwisai had aired videos of revolts against autocratic rule in Egypt and Tunisia in order to incite a copycat uprising in Zimbabwe. Defence lawyers said the meeting was merely an academic debate.
Despite public disenchantment with Mugabe's 32-year rule, public protests against him are rare, mainly due to tough security laws.
Critics say Mugabe has used draconian security laws and tough policing to keep a grip on power, after years of human rights abuses and economic mismanagement.
The veteran ruler was forced into a power-sharing government with Tsvangirai three years ago after a disputed 2008 election.
Mugabe wants elections to be held this year, although Tsvangirai says he will boycott any poll called before political reforms, including the promulgation of a new Constitution. -- Reuters