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article imageZimbabwe pastor charged with trying to overthrow government

By Reagan Mashavave (AFP)     Jul 13, 2016 in Politics

The pastor who has emerged as leader of Zimbabwe's new protest movement was charged Wednesday with attempting to overthrow President Robert Mugabe's authoritarian government.

Evan Mawarire, 39, is accused of setting up a campaign aimed at "overthrowing or attempting to overthrow the government by unconstitutional means," according to the charge sheet.

He appeared at Harare magistrates' court with a national flag tied around his neck while several hundred young supporters sang and chanted outside.

A recent series of demonstrations, the largest in years, have been driven by an economic crisis in Zimbabwe that has left banks short of cash and the government struggling to pay its workers.

Mugabe, 92, has previously used his ruthless security forces to crack down on any public show of dissent, and riot police were on duty outside the court.

Mawarire, who started the popular ThisFlag internet campaign in April, was an organiser of a one-day nationwide strike last week that closed offices, shops, schools and some government departments.

Asked by magistrate Vakai Chikwekwe if he understood the charges against him, he said: "I have understood, your worship."

Mawarire was originally charged with inciting public violence when he was arrested on Tuesday, his lawyer Harrison Nkomo said.

"This is clearly unlawful because upon his arrest he was not informed of these (new) charges," Nkomo told the court.

Protest organisers had appealed for Zimbabweans to hold another strike starting on Wednesday, but their calls were largely unsuccessful with businesses and schools open as usual.

"They made sure that they arrested the people who are most vocal and fearless -- that is why the response is not as good as it was last week," Onias Marongwa, who works in a grocery store, told AFP.

- Growing frustration -

Mawarire was brought into court through a back entrance, as scores of lawyers from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights group offered to represent him.

"The arrest of Pastor Evan Mawarire appears to be a well-calculated plan to intimidate him and other activists," Muleya Mwananyanda of Amnesty International said in a statement.

Zimbabwe anti-riot police guard the entrance at the Harare magistrate's court where pastor Evan...
Zimbabwe anti-riot police guard the entrance at the Harare magistrate's court where pastor Evan Mawarire was due to appear in court on charges of inciting public violence following his arrest ahead of a planned mass job stayaway on July 13, 2016
Jekesai Njikizana, AFP

"Instead of suppressing dissenting voices, Zimbabwean authorities should be listening to protesters."

Amnesty said about 300 people had been arrested for participating in protests around the country since they started last week.

Demonstrations have revealed long-bubbling frustration in a country where 90 percent of the population are not in formal employment.

Mugabe, who is increasingly fragile, has overseen years of economic decline, repression of dissent, allegedly rigged elections and mass emigration since he came to power in 1980.

Last week security forces used tear gas and water cannon to disperse violent protests outside Harare that erupted over police officers allegedly using road blocks to extort cash from motorists.

Television footage showed police beating protesters with sticks.

Other protests have erupted at the border with South Africa over a ban on imports such as canned vegetables, powdered milk and cooking oil.

On Tuesday, Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chombo held a press conference to warn that anyone who took part in the planned two-day strike would face "the full wrath of the law".

Many civil servants have been paid their delayed June salaries since last week.

In the southeastern town of Masvingo, most shops and offices were open despite the planned strike.

"The regime's machinery is very visible," Takafira Zhou, leader of the Progressive Teachers' Union in the town, told AFP.

"Today's response to the strike is low as some people who took part last week had their salaries forfeited and they fear the worst if they are seen to be defiant."

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